Send the right signal on rail

Published Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Florida lawmakers have one job to accomplish in the special legislative session that opens today: Send a strong signal to Washington about the state's support for rail to draw billions of federal dollars for high-speed and regional commuter lines. The House bill is a starting point for creating a statewide strategy for rail. But lawmakers need a more reliable funding source, and they need to further limit the costs taxpayers would face from any accidents along the rail line.

Florida has applied for $2.5 billion in federal money to build the first leg of a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando (and eventually to Miami). The state has committed land for the route along Interstate 4 and completed the environmental and ridership studies. But federal officials have said Florida needs to show more support for rail to win a chunk of at least $13 billion the Obama administration has committed for high-speed rail over the next five years. The House bill is an improvement over previous versions, but it still falls short of sending the right message to Washington.

The bill establishes a strong framework for rail on many fronts. It creates a statewide rail authority to coordinate publicly funded passenger rail. That agency would give rail the higher profile it needs and serve as a resource to regional efforts looking to build intercity lines. The legislation enshrines in law the state's responsibility to help regional rail systems get off the ground. The bill gives money to Tri-Rail, the underfunded line serving Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. And it would clear the way for new regional rail systems, including SunRail in Central Florida and the budding effort for rail in the Tampa Bay area, to receive both the capital and the operating money they would need from the state.

There are still improvements to be made. The bill commits up to $15 million annually to Tri-Rail. But the state is counting on funding that obligation, at least through 2014, with anticipated surpluses in gas taxes. What will happen if the forecast is wrong? And where will the money come from after 2014? Tri-Rail needs a more stable funding source.

The legislation also would clear the way for the $1.2 billion SunRail commuter line from DeLand south to Poinciana. The bill better answers questions about legal liability when accidents occur and requires CSX to accept more responsibility than earlier versions. But it still does not go far enough. The proposal calls for the state to purchase the tracks from CSX and for the freight carrier to share the line. The state still would cover most damages arising from accidents — including some where CSX is at fault. CSX would be liable for damages it caused at railroad crossings. But taxpayers would be liable for damages to rail passengers and station property even in crashes where CSX was at fault. The state could recover money from CSX if the company was found to have acted with "willful misconduct," but the amount recoverable would be capped at $10 million.

This legislation is meant to chart a new course for the state and to be a model for how all governments in Florida acquire, operate and fund passenger rail. The high-speed line, Tri-Rail and SunRail offer Florida enormous opportunities. But the state needs to fund them adequately and insist on fair deals from our private-sector business partners.

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