Senators question rail bill
December 4, 2009
A conservative state senator stunned his colleagues on Thursday when he announced he was switching his "yes" vote on a commuter rail proposal to "no."
Other senators who voted "no" in the past said they don't know how they will vote this time thus leaving the future of SunRail and TriRail all the more uncertain.
The state Legislature began deliberating Thursday on a plan to create the SunRail commuter rail line around Orlando, and shore up Tri-Rail, an existing line in South Florida. Earlier versions of those proposals have failed repeatedly in the Senate, where it was soon clear that the vote count remains tight as ever.
The bill dredges up years of debates over spending and the state's legal liability for rail accidents. But lawmakers are taking it up again because federal officials have warned that failure to do so would jeopardize the state's application for $2.5 billion to build high-speed rail linking Tampa to Orlando.
And while Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said negotiations were in the works to address union opposition, which has also dogged the $1.2 billion SunRail project, it is unclear whether the House will accept any concessions. A House panel unanimously approved the rail bill on Thursday for consideration by the full chamber today.
Some conservatives, meanwhile, are balking at what they view as an unwarranted expansion of government.
Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, a longtime SunRail supporter, surprised senators by declaring at a workshop on the bill he cannot support its creation of a statewide rail authority. He said the proposal goes too far to promote costly future rail projects that will lose money by design, including high-speed rail, which Baker said he does not support.
"I thought we were coming up here to vote on a nice SunRail bill - a Little Red Riding Hood bill. Instead we're voting on this Big Bad Wolf bill that I don't support," Baker said during a Senate workshop on the bill.
Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, also criticized the proposed expansion of government and disputed claims that it was vital for job growth.
A longstanding opponent of SunRail, Storms also criticized the brevity of debate and lack of financial details provided.
"I have spent more time shopping for the price of a computer than, as a senator, I have been afforded to examine and kick the tires of this deal," she said.
Storms worked closely last session with Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, SunRail's fiercest opponent, who said she will likely speak at a conservative "Tea Party" protest of SunRail on Monday. But Dockery, who is running for governor, said she isn't sure if she can muster enough votes to kill SunRail a third time.
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who has voted with Dockery on SunRail in the past, said Thursday he did not how he will vote this time. "Both sides are not happy with me, because I have refused to commit. I wanted to come up here with an open, objective mind. ... I'm going to be looking at the details closely."
He said, he wants to be sure $15 million set aside for Tri-Rail isn't a "Band-Aid," and that the Bay area will benefit from the legislation. Proponents have yet to back up promises that it will, he said.
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