Commuter Rail Proposal Stagnates
March 31, 2009
With only a month left in the state legislative session, the going has gotten slow for Central Florida's commuter rail project.
A bill with a key liability agreement won't come up for at least two weeks in the next Senate committee scheduled to hear it. At the same time, the head of the U.S. House Transportation Committee has called signing such agreements an "unacceptable practice."
The comments from U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., came in response to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report about the arrangements that governments make when they buy freight railroads for public use.
In Florida's case, the state plans to give CSX Transportation $432 million for 61 miles of the track that runs through downtown Orlando. The track would be used for a commuter system, called SunRail.
Part of the money would also be used for rail improvements along the line going through Dade City and Lakeland into a new truck-rail hub in Winter Haven.
CSX plans to keep using the Orlando area tracks during off-peak commuter hours, but it requires the state to take liability for all damage to commuter trains or passengers in the case of an accident, even one caused by CSX.
Oberstar and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, sought the GAO report last year, when the Florida Legislature first debated the proposed liability agreement. It failed, holding up the CSX sale and SunRail's construction plans.
If the state doesn't approve the agreement this session, the CSX deal will die.
The bill containing the agreement moved easily through previous committees this session, but state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has held it up in the committee he chairs, Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations.
It's not the liability provision, he said. He doesn't like the way it makes a space for Lakeland on a waiting list for future transportation dollars. This language was added to appease Lakeland's anger over the extra trains expected to be routed through the town center because of the state-funded rail improvements.
Giving any area priority on the transportation funding list circumvents rules designed to take regional politics out of the process, he said.
He also wants assurances that no state money will be spent for SunRail until the federal government has provided its share. SunRail organizers sold the plan with the promise of federal help in construction of the system.
"I don't want the state to put out hundreds of millions of dollars to pay CSX and start developing this project only to find out in a year or two the federal government is not coming in," Fasano said.
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