Florida lawmakers open special session on rail

AP News
Posted: Dec 03, 2009 4:52 PM

Senate President Jeff Atwater says he's confident his chamber will reverse its prior opposition to legislation that would clear the way for a commuter rail system in central Florida.

Identical House and Senate bills being considered at a special legislative session that begin Thursday also include up to $15 million each year in additional state money for the financially troubled Tri-Rail commuter line in South Florida.

Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said the bills respond to at least some issues that twice before doomed similar proposals in the Senate after they'd been passed in the House.

One difference is the rail legislation now is being sold as a step for possibly obtaining $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money to also build a high-speed system between Tampa and Orlando with a possible future link to Miami.

"My conversations with members over the last week have been that they wanted to see something bigger and bolder," Atwater said. "When they have a chance to hear all of the bill and see the elements of this bill that we're looking bigger, farther down the road."

Atwater and other rail advocates argue the bills (HB 1B, SB 2B) also would establish a framework for future commuter service in other urban areas by creating two new entities.

The proposed Statewide Passenger Rail Commission would advise the Department of Transportation and the Florida Rail Enterprise would oversee development of commuter lines as well as a high-speed system.

Gov. Charlie Crist said he, too, is confident the legislation will pass because it would create thousands of new jobs desperately needed in a state with an 11.2 percent unemployment rate.

"Voting against this would be absolutely catastrophic," Crist said.

The legislation faces stiff opposition from labor unions that argue 95 union rail workers would lose their jobs or take pay cuts. That's because the plan calls for the state to purchase existing rail lines from freight hauler CSX, which now employs those workers. The state would hire contractors to fill the jobs.

The number of workers affected could grow into the thousands as additional commuter systems are developed, said Florida AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin.

Atwater said he's met with the unions and that talks will continue on seeking an accord.

"I don't know that there is any one particular agency, branch, piece of our Legislature that is throwing down a gauntlet," Atwater said. "You'll have to wait until the end to see whether or not we can find comforting language."

The unions are a key constituency for Democrats, who could hold the legislation's fate in their hands. Republicans have solid majorities in both chambers, but past opposition has been bipartisan.

Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee said he didn't want to dismiss the unions' concerns but is supportive of the legislation because it would put thousands of Floridians to work building, maintaining and operating the SunRail commuter system in the Orlando area.

Some lawmakers also have questioned the sufficiency and cost of liability provisions that call for the state to purchase $200 million in insurance coverage for any major crashes involving the Sunrail commuter trains and CSX freight trains that would share the track.

The legislation is moving first in the House, which will begin floor debate Friday and take a vote Monday. The Senate is scheduled for a vote Wednesday.

If the Senate accepts the House version, the bill then would go to Crist, an outspoken supporter of the legislation. If not, the chambers will have through next Friday to resolve their differences.

The session began with 34 of the 120 representatives and 11 of the 40 senators absent. Most were Democrats who had been excused to attend the annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

House Speaker Larry Cretul rejected a Democratic request to delay the special session until next week. The Ocala Republican said lawmakers needed to begin this week to make sure they finish by Dec. 11 _ the first day of Hanukkah.

"It is our job not only constitutionally but personally to be sure that we don't inconvenience and neglect what we're here for," Cretul said.

This is the second special session of the year. Lawmakers started 2009 with a nine-day special session in January to pass a budget deficit-reduction package before returning to Tallahassee in March for their regular 60-day session.


Associated Press writer Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee contributed to this report.