Senate's turn to improve rail bill

Published Monday, December 7, 2009

The state Senate takes up a commuter rail bill today it could easily justify rejecting as it has on two previous occasions because of concerns about legal liability and funding. But that would be too easy. This could be a pivotal moment for the future of transportation in Florida, and the Senate should improve the bill approved by the House on Monday instead of giving up and going home.

Lawmakers went into special session last week in hopes of passing a statewide rail policy strong enough to attract $3 billion from Washington for both high-speed and regional commuter rail systems. The legislation broadly advances that goal by creating a statewide framework for financing and operating passenger rail, a first for Florida. But the Senate needs to fix the bill by requiring that CSX accept more responsibility for accidents the for-profit freight carrier causes. It also needs to dedicate a funding source for rail instead of siphoning money from the state's other pressing needs.

The House bill improves on a plan the Senate has twice rejected. It now calls for CSX to pay for damages it causes at railroad crossings, and the company also could be forced to repay the state up to $10 million in damages in cases where the company acted with "willful misconduct." But that $10 million limit is too low given that damages to people and property along the lines could reach hundreds of millions of dollars. The state also would continue to indemnify CSX against most accidents in a corridor the freight carrier would share with the proposed SunRail passenger system in greater Orlando. The responsibility for liability needs to be more fairly divided between the state and CSX.

The bill also needs a stronger financial commitment to rail. While the bill commits up to $15 million annually to South Florida's Tri-Rail commuter line, that amount would barely cover the current operating deficit. The money would come from an anticipated increase in gas tax collections, which are expected to drop off after 2012. The proposed "dedicated" funding for new rail in Florida would actually be a reallocation of documentary stamp tax proceeds. Legislators already are siphoning off doc stamp money intended for affordable housing and environmental lands to meet general revenue obligations for other programs.

The special session was intended to show Washington that Florida is a reliable partner in the development of passenger rail. SunRail saw this as an opportunity to attach its agenda to the state's application for federal high-speed money. So far, all it's signaling is Florida's failure to reach consensus. Senate President Jeff Atwater claimed he had the votes to pass the legislation, but his counting may be off. The House cobbled together its bill in secret; organized labor is insisting railroad jobs be union jobs; and antitax activists are exploiting the rail issue for their own goals.

In short, the Senate has a mess on its hands. It needs to shift more legal liability to CSX, and it needs to find a dedicated funding source for both SunRail and Tri-Rail that is adequate. While the House bill is an improvement over previous versions, Floridians deserve better and Washington needs to see a more serious commitment to rail.

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