Decision point on commuter rail
December 6, 2009
The state's transportation future will be shaped this week by one clear, difficult choice. If modern passenger rail service is to come to Florida any time soon, the Legislature must pass a new law in special session that sets up a statewide structure to oversee and help pay for regional and city-to-city trains.
The decision can't wait for a better bill, a stronger economy or a longer period for debate. Florida is at a crossroads. To reject the proposal pulled together by Senate President Jeff Atwater, a Republican from North Palm Beach, would send two damaging signals.
One message would go to the White House and say that Florida does not support rail transit, so forget about giving us $2.5 billion to build a super-fast train from Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami. It may be unfair and somewhat irrational that commuter rail lines and long-distance trains are so tightly linked. The fact is they are in the minds of federal rail officials, who have made no secret of their thinking.
The second signal would be to urban areas. Tampa, Orlando and other cities would get the message that if they want an alternative to jammed highways, they're on their own to figure out what to do.
The bill would create a new rail agency within the state Department of Transportation. It would be called Florida Rail Enterprise and bring coherence to statewide rail planning and financing. It would require no new taxes or affect existing programs. A portion of undesignated revenue from the documentary stamp on real-estate transactions would eventually fund the effort. The decision to build a first rail line is always controversial, so state leadership is essential, just as it is in the construction of major highways.
The current piecemeal approach pits one region against another and raises serious doubts about state participation, which is needed to attract federal dollars.
Tri-Rail in Southeast Florida is struggling to survive, and SunRail can't get off the drawing board, despite a pledge by local governments to help pay for it. Rail for Hillsborough County goes to a vote next year with opponents raising doubts about state and federal assistance. The bill being considered in Tallahassee would for the first time in Florida treat rail projects as assets worthy of permanent financial support, just like highways.
The majority of Tampa's legislative delegation is leaning against supporting the rail bill. If they help kill it, they would reduce the chances of success for local rail. If the bill passes over their united opposition, Tampa could find itself at the bottom of the state's priority list for new transit projects. Reprisal would be unfair, but that's politics. The bullet train might go from Orlando to Miami first, and never to Tampa.
If the bill passes with a reasonable level of support from West-Central Florida, the future for rail here would be much brighter. The first truly high-speed rail line in the Western Hemisphere might be built straight into downtown Tampa, and it could link to Hillsborough County's proposed light-rail line. Surrounding counties would have a big incentive to join, either with express buses or their own rail projects.
The liability issue with CSX freight trains sharing state-owned tracks would be resolved for the Orlando train in a way that could be repeated in other parts of the state. The private company would accept a share of the responsibility for accidents. That's a big improvement over the original proposal that made the state to blame for anything that went wrong.
Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who deserves credit for leading the successful fight against that bad deal last session and forcing the revisions, is not satisfied by the new terms. But she should recognize that it's virtually impossible to achieve a flawless deal and the stakes are too high to walk away from legislation that finally would enable Florida to develop a diverse transportation system, one the Republican leadership and most business groups are certain will be the foundation of an economic renaissance.
We understand that some rail advocates overstate the benefits of trains. We understand the principled opposition against big-government projects. But we can't understand the vision of some lawmakers who seem to think Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville need the same transportation policy that works for Macon, Moultrie, Valdosta and Waycross.
Florida must begin spending more of its tax revenue on transit, as is done in other urban states, and it need not increase taxes statewide to do that. Circumstances require the state to either adopt a modern rail policy right now or be left far behind for decades, if not forever.
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