Shadowy Rail Deal Needs Good Scrubbing
It's disappointing that Gov. Charlie Crist has thrown his full support to the $1.2 billion deal between the state and CSX Transportation that could bring commuter rail to four counties near Orlando.
It's not that Central Florida doesn't desperately need another mode of transportation or even that the purchase of track isn't a good idea. There are simply too many unresolved questions about the project, not the least of which is whether it is worth it for the state to pay for upgrades to track owned by a for-profit railroad at a time of economic contraction.
CSX would reap the windfall. The benefits to taxpayers are less clear. And nearby communities would be forced to deal with a surge in freight train and big truck traffic that would damage their quality of life and economic prospects. Lawmakers rightly rejected the deal last year, and this year's proposal is not much better as they approach another vote.
As it now stands, Florida would buy 61 miles of CSX's A-Line, one of two major rail lines between Jacksonville and Central Florida. Most of the day the track would serve commuter trains, but CSX would lease it to run freight during off-peak hours. Under the complicated deal, the state would also pay for improvements along the railroad's S-Line, north-south tracks down the spine of Florida. This would allow CSX to shift freight trains out of Orlando and send them through downtown Lakeland and Plant City to a proposed 318-acre hub in Winter Haven.
For CSX it's a win-win. The railroad gets improved freight-rail lines and taxpayers foot the bill. And that bill keeps growing.
Initially, former Gov. Jeb Bush committed $491 million to the CSX deal - $150 million for the tracks and $341 million for the hub and track improvements through the state's backwoods. The estimate has since jumped to $641 million because of needed rail overpasses in Alachua, Ocala and Wildwood.
Proponents of the plan, such as Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, admit the project would be an easier sell if the freight-line improvements were not part of it, but they obviously believe CSX would not be interested in selling the track without the extra benefits.
Nevertheless, before lawmakers put taxpayers on the hook, they should try to renegotiate.
DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousis has said the commuter rail project and proposed improvements to the S-line are not linked. If that's correct, then the state should sever the apparent connection. The state already has the money appropriated to buy the land and tracks for rail, and it still would be a good deal to CSX - one of the most expensive rail sales ever.
If the deal remains linked with improving CSX freight lines, however, lawmakers must consider how the daily addition of 1,500 big trucks to haul freight on area roads, including Interstate 4 and U.S.Highway 60, will help with congestion. They must also be sure the federal funding we're told is in the pipeline will really be there. Otherwise the state, counties and local communities supporting the project will have to come up with all the money.
And liability needs to be resolved. CSX should be responsible if it causes an accident. The project's supporters this year are not seeking an extension of sovereign immunity for the people who will do the maintenance, security and signaling on the commuter line. To win the support of citizens, lawmakers should similarly apportion liability according to who's responsible for accidents.
The entire deal needs a thorough inspection and scrubbing.
Dyer worries if the agreement collapses, the commuter rail line through Volusia, Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties will never be built. We don't think that justifies going along with a bad deal.
But if Crist and the lawmakers feel the commuter project is critical to Central Florida, they should approve only the commuter rail provisions. They must not give the go-ahead to a shadowy transaction that enriches CSX while leaving Hillsborough and Polk communities tied to the tracks.