Rail idea on wrong track

Published Friday, November 27, 2009

Gov. Charlie Crist wants to hold a special legislative session in December to cut a deal on commuter rail. The goal is to find a revenue stream for commuter rail systems in South Florida and greater Orlando. The state believes that will impress Washington enough to commit $2.5 billion in federal funds for an eventual high-speed rail line serving Tampa-Orlando-Miami. Florida needs all three rail systems — and the state must show a commitment to fund these operations for the long term. But the current proposal is a gimmick that does not secure rail, protect Floridians or send the right message to Washington.

Federal transit officials told Florida this fall to get its act together if it hoped to win federal funding for a high-speed rail system 25 years in the making. Florida has committed land and completed environmental studies for a high-speed rail link along Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando. The goal is to extend the line to Miami and connect it with other high-speed rail systems in development throughout the country. Federal officials said they wanted some sign that the state would support rail over the many years the system takes to mature.

Local officials in greater Orlando and South Florida saw this as a chance to finance their own regional rail systems. This is unfortunate, because high-speed was always a separate system and the troubles facing SunRail in Orlando and Tri-Rail in South Florida are serious enough that they could easily undermine Florida's high-speed bid rather than help it. In the case of SunRail, legislators have balked at the $1.2 billion price tag of a 61-mile line from DeLand to Poinciana, and the demand by the track owner, CSX, that the state indemnify the rail company against accidents.

In the case of Tri-Rail, South Florida legislators have repeatedly failed to secure stable funding for the Palm Beach-Broward-Miami-Dade system. Without funding for operations, South Florida officials fear the federal government will seek to recoup $256-million it spent on Tri-Rail.

The proposal gaining steam would commit unexpected, increased revenues from state vehicle fees and gasoline taxes toward SunRail and Tri-Rail. The money — about $76 million over the coming year — could get SunRail off the ground and go a long way toward supplying Tri-Rail with the $40 million or more it needs annually. It would enable lawmakers to avoid approving a rental car tax or other levy to finance the lines or establish the state's commitment to rail.

But what if the anticipated gas tax surpluses — estimated to be $376 million over a decade — do not materialize? Will the state reach into the transportation trust fund, or general revenue, to make up the loss? Or would that cost be shifted to local taxpayers in South Florida or greater Orlando? And what is the argument for taking those surpluses away from the state's road-building trust fund, which has nowhere near the capacity to meet Florida's needs? This is not dedicating a revenue stream; it is pinning rail to a 10-year economic forecast. And what is the split between SunRail and Tri-Rail? Better yet, why should motorists in Naples or the Panhandle subsidize local mass transit hundreds of miles away that they will never use?

An even bigger issue is SunRail's proposal to indemnify CSX for accidents that occur in the rail corridor the two would share. State and local officials say CSX is open to renegotiating the liability agreement. But there is no language on the table about reducing the public's exposure, which could dwarf any annual subsidies for SunRail or Tri-Rail. Lawmakers need to hold firm and insist CSX be responsible for accidents the company causes.

Crist is right to want to move quickly. Federal officials will award the high-speed money within months, and they need a strong sign that Florida will invest in rail. But the terms of the deal shaping this would-be special session are half-baked. It would not limit the financial risks to state taxpayers. It would not provide the two commuter lines the stable revenue stream they need. Nor would it provide a strong signal that Florida is responsible and deserves the federal rail money. SunRail, Tri-Rail and high-speed rail are all important to commuters and the Florida economy. But it is important to get the details right.