State special session to discuss SunRail
December 1, 2009
State Senate President Jeff Atwater has sent legislators a summary of new legislation on the controversial SunRail proposal, to be debated in a special legislative session starting Thursday morning.
Atwater told the senators the new legislation would set up a statewide authority similar to the state Turnpike Enterprise to oversee rail transit systems, and solve the problems that led to SunRail's defeat in the last two legislative sessions.
But Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who led opposition to Orlando's SunRail in last spring's session, says not enough has changed, and the proposal still won't have enough votes to pass the Senate.
"Very little has changed," said Dockery, who's now running for governor. "We should not be going into a regular session, much less a special session, to talk about policy that's not good for the taxpayers."
The proposal is also drawing opposition from organized labor, which says it is stacked to replace union workers with non-union workers.
There have been indications, however, that some of Dockery's allies could change their minds.
Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul both notified their legislators Monday to show up in Tallahassee on Thursday morning for a session to last about a week.
The goal, Atwater said, is to "create a comprehensive rail transit policy for Florida," including shoring up funding for the Tri-Rail commuter rail system in South Florida and establishing the SunRail commuter system in Central Florida.
Supporters argue both steps are necessary to make the state a good candidate for millions in federal aid to build a statewide high-speed rail system from Tampa to Orlando to complement the commuter systems.
The legislation would:
•Shift $13 million to $15 million a year in Department of Transportation gasoline tax revenue to the Tri-Rail system.
•Set aside at least $60 million a year for rail projects from a Department of Transportation fund normally used for regional projects and paid for with taxes on real estate sales.
•Establish Florida Rail Enterprise, similar to the Florida Turnpike Enterprise, to govern rail transit policy statewide. Atwater said this would be done using only existing state jobs.
•Set up an appointed advisory board on rail systems, the Passenger Rail Commission.
The proposal drops a proposed, local-option rental car tax for rail projects. Last spring, some South Florida legislators agreed to support SunRail in return for the tax for Tri-Rail, but the idea was unpopular with anti-tax conservatives.
"I think the votes are there, but it's going to be close, and it can't be tied to a tax increase," said state Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis.
Atwater also said the proposal solves SunRail's biggest legislative problem - legal liability for accidents on SunRail tracks, which the state would buy from CSX railway.
CSX, which would continue using the tracks, sought a no-fault plan with the state responsible for damages from accidents, even those caused by CSX freights.
Atwater said the new proposal makes CSX liable if one of its trains hits a trespasser on the track or a vehicle at a crossing, "those accidents that most commonly occur on the nation's rails today."
In a collision between two trains, CSX would pay the insurance deductible up to $10 million in an accident caused by willful or wanton misconduct of its employees.
Dockery said that doesn't solve the problem.
"The issue was, who is legally responsible for the liability, and that has not been changed," she said. "This is CSX saying 'pay me 10 times what my track is worth, allow me to continue using it, then be responsible if I cause an accident, but I may chip in toward the insurance policy.'"
Dockery said the proposal, which died on a 16-24 vote last spring, still can't reach a 21-vote majority.
But since then, no-voter Jim King of Jacksonville has died and been replaced by a supporter, John Thrasher; and two Democratic senators, Al Lawson of Tallahassee and Dave Aronberg of Greenacres, have said they would consider switching with liability provisions like those described by Atwater.
Back to Tampa Tribune Page. . .
Back to Home Page. . .