Rail legislation will put economy back on track
December 10, 2009
The Florida Legislature, with the support of most Tampa Bay area lawmakers, has made it possible for the state to build a modern rail transit system. Good job.
The vote statewide was one-sided because the need to move ahead was so obvious and strongly endorsed by business and civic leaders around the state.
The issue came down to jobs, as Republican Sen. Victor Crist, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties, explained. When we talked to Crist before the special session, he said he was keeping an open mind, but he seemed to be leaning against voting for the rail bill. He emphasized the budget problems the state is sure to face next year and wondered if taxpayers could afford to start expensive new rail projects.
After listening to the debate, he decided that transportation improvements are the best hope for attracting good, new jobs. So he joined the majority in voting yes.
It was the right decision. Consider the one-year forecast for Florida by USA Today, citing data from Moody's Economy.com. Florida's job growth is predicted to be negative 2 percent, four times worse than the national average. Construction jobs are expected to fall 21.3 percent.
The status quo has become intolerable.
Critics say there's no guarantee the jobs will come even if rail corridors are built for commuters, business travelers and tourists. But who could possibly guarantee that companies will relocate here? What's important is the evidence that shows useful rail lines do attract private investment. To ignore that reality is to relegate the state to second-tier status.
There's also no guarantee federal transit money will flow to Florida. But it is a sure bet that without a state and local commitment, Florida won't get its share.
Rail is obviously not Florida's only priority. Most gasoline taxes will continue to be used for highways, and the share of documentary stamp revenue that will support a new statewide rail agency should not cut into funds needed for environmental land preservation.
All this legislation does is to put Florida in the game. No one can promise that it will continue to make the right choices and field a winning team. Much work and many hard decisions remain ahead for the Legislature, the rail authority, regional authorities, local boards and voters.
But despite the current economic uncertainty, the odds that Florida will build itself a more prosperous future improved significantly this week. That's something to cheer about.
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