The Great Train Robbery of 2009
By Howard Troxler, Times Columnist
Published Saturday, December 5, 2009
Here is the question of the hour, the week, the month and maybe the year in Tallahassee:
Why are our governor and the bosses of our Legislature suddenly all hot and insistent that what Florida needs most is ... commuter rail?
Why are we suddenly willing to spend something like $1.2 billion of your money, my money, state money, local money, federal money?
Why are they suddenly crying that we absolutely must say yes, so we can chase billions more in President Barack Obama's "stimulus" money that they previously despised?
Why are they promising the magical creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs (if that promise has not been exaggerated into millions by now) through massive spending?
Why have they called the Florida Legislature into an extraordinary session on short notice, demanding that this deal be passed right now?
Mass transit. A billion-plus dollars. Stimulus money. Job creation though big spending. Who are they — the Democrats in Congress?
Here is the why.
It is about benefiting a big, powerful company, namely the CSX Corp., with one of the sweetest sweetheart deals ever proposed in Florida.
The rest is window dressing.
It is pretty window dressing, no question. It is designed to appease the choo-choo lovers, the urban planners, the idealists. If they back this gravy train now, maybe they get a drop later.
There is lots of nice wording in this deal about a "statewide rail policy," about how the state promises to pay for it all down the road. The deal contains a bribe to South Florida for the rail system down there. Hey, we'll even revive our lip service to high-speed rail.
But this is mostly about three things:
• Paying CSX an outrageous price for 61 miles of track in Orlando to transfer the ownership to the state. Of course, the railroad still gets to use the tracks anyway.
• Shifting legal liability from CSX to taxpayers, except in only the most egregious cases of the railroad's negligence.
• Allowing CSX dramatic increases in the number of freight trains it can send on another route, with serious impacts on a string of cities such as Dade City, Plant City and Lakeland.
For once, however, the deal in the Capitol is not totally rigged. The most rare and precious of events is happening in the Legislature: an honest debate, an open fight.
The opposition is led by state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who is seriously improving her long-shot campaign for governor with her mastery of the issue. The other day she single-handedly cut to ribbons a panel of her colleagues who could only mouth platitudes.
"We are paying them," Dockery said, "10 times what their corridor is worth for the honor of owning that corridor. It's now our corridor. So they're introducing freight into our passenger rail corridor. They should be indemnifying us. Not the other way around."
We really don't even need to buy the track, Dockery argued, only pay for increasing the capacity.
"So why," she asked, "are we costing the taxpayers $641 million when we don't need to buy the track in the first place?"
Her colleague, Republican Joe Negron, could only answer lamely: "Any proposed business arrangement has its pros and cons."