Fla. lawmakers open special session on rail system

AP News
Posted: Dec 03, 2009 10:22 AM

Advocates are hoping the lure of federal stimulus dollars will overcome opposition to creating a central Florida commuter rail system and shoring up an existing line in South Florida during a nine-day special session that starts Thursday.

The state is seeking $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money to also begin building a high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando that eventually may extend to Miami.

Florida, though, is one of 24 states seeking $50 billion _ more than six times the $8 billion available. High-speed projects with links to commuter rail systems are expected to have a leg up in the competition for the stimulus money.

"We have been informed directly, or rather indirectly, from our federal friends that if we can accomplish something before the end of the year, we have a much better opportunity for the high-speed rail component," Gov. Charlie Crist said.

Legislation to create the proposed SunRail system in the Orlando area failed during the past two regular legislative sessions. It passed in the House both times but was rejected in the Senate including a 23-16 bipartisan vote earlier this year.

That measure drew opposition in part because it also had a $2 per day car rental surtax in three South Florida counties to help subsidize their financially troubled Tri-Rail system.

SunRail is expected to cost $2.66 billion over 30 years with the state, federal and local governments each contributing $700 million and the rest coming from fares, said Rep. Gary Aubuchon, a Cape Coral Republican who is sponsoring the special session bill in the House.

Aubuchon said SunRail would be transformational even if Florida doesn't get the high-speed dollars.

"In the short term, we will be able to put thousands of Floridians to work," Aubuchon said. "We will be able to alleviate congestion along the I-4 corridor from Poinciana to Deland. And we will be able in the long term to transform not just our mode of transportation in the state but really our land use development along those corridors."

Besides the attraction of high-speed stimulus dollars, the rental car surtax has been dropped. Instead, the state would give Tri-Rail up to $15 million per year from Florida's Transportation Trust Fund on top of its annual $18.9 million state subsidy.

State economists last month increased their revenue estimate for the trust fund by $389 million, or about 2 percent, through June 30, 2015. The fund is supported by fuel taxes, and the economists now expect higher gasoline consumption than previously forecast.

Other stumbling blocks, though, remain.

The SunRail plan calls for purchasing 61.5 miles of track from CSX. Labor unions are against the deal because they say about 100 CSX workers and eventually several times that number would be replaced by state-contracted employees who likely would be nonunion.

The Republican-controlled Legislature's leadership has rejected proposals that would protect those union jobs. Florida AFL-CIO President Mike Williams calls the legislation "government-sanctioned union-busting."

Aubuchon contends the project would affect no more than eight union employees who would be offered a handsome severance package or a chance to transfer to another CSX job at company expense.

"In this environment, I still find it remarkable that with over a million Floridans out of work somebody would want a guarantee that they would keep their job in perpetuity," Aubuchon said.

The deal also would let CSX continue to haul freight on the tracks. That's lead to questions over liability for accidents involving CSX trains.

SunRail's most vocal legislative critic, Sen. Paula Dockery, argues the $432 million price tag for the CSX track is too high. The Lakeland Republican also has objected to part of the plan that would divert long, noisy, slow-running freight trains through her hometown.