Legislation that would clear the way for creating a commuter rail system in central Florida zipped through the House at bullet-train speed Monday, but it was headed for an uncertain fate in the Senate.
It also includes an increase in the state's subsidy for the existing Tri-Rail commuter system in South Florida and sets up two statewide agencies to plan, build and operate future passenger rail systems of all types across Florida.
The bill passed on a bipartisan 84-25 roll call as the sole subject of a special legislative session.
Similar legislation has twice failed in the Senate and a close vote is likely. One supporter, Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, is recovering from a heart attack and probably will miss the vote expected there by Wednesday.
Supporters argued that Florida cannot hope to qualify for $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money to also build a high-speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa _ with a possible future extension to Miami _ unless the SunRail system is established in the Orlando area.
"At the end of the day this isn't about rail," said Rep. Gary Aubuchon, the House sponsor. "This is about transforming Florida's future. It's about land use and it's about development and it's about sustaining our environment."
The Cape Coral Republican argued the bill would create thousands of jobs, reduce highway congestion, stimulate business and help the state manage growth by concentrating new development along rail lines.
Opponents argued SunRail will be a costly boondoggle, starting with $432 million the state would pay to freight hauler CSX for 61.5 miles of track.
"CSX gets another sweet deal," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "The appraised value of the land that Florida will purchase is much, much higher than it's worth. It's another break for corporations in this state."
Aubuchon defended the appraisals that ranged from $430 million to $438 million. He said the cost is high because the rails run through some of the world's most valuable real estate and cannot be compared to prices in rural areas or for abandoned track. CSX would continue to use the track under the proposed deal.
Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, acknowledged it might be a windfall for CSX but said critics also complained about tax breaks the state gave Disney to attract the entertainment giant to central Florida years ago.
"It was a windfall for the state of Florida and this also will be," Van Zant said.
SunRail is expected to cost $2.66 billion over 30 years with the state, federal and local governments each contributing $775 million and the rest coming from fares.
Aubuchon said that three-to-one return was a good deal for the state and would cost less than adding a single lane of interstate highway along the SunRail route.
Starting in 2014 the bill would divert $60 million a year to rail projects from other transportation spending. It also would provide up to $15 million more each year for the Tri-Rail system besides the $27 million the state already spends to prop up that financially troubled line.