» Newfound support for rail investment likely a result of push by DOT Secretary for the state to prop up train travel.
Update, 9 December 2009: Florida Senate passes the bill 27-10, an unexpectedly large majority, prepping the legislation for a signing by Governor Crist. Florida has put itself at the top, with California, in demanding federal funds for HSR.
Earlier this fall, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood gave Florida officials a choice: either buck up and support funding for the state’s commuter rail systems, or lose out on potential federal funding for a proposed high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando. Mr. LaHood’s challenge seems to have paid off: this week, state legislators began debating a law that would create a new Florida Rail Enterprise that would fund the existing Tri-Rail commuter system in Miami, ensure construction of the Orlando-area SunRail line, and take command of high-speed rail development. If the proposal passes next Wednesday as planned, Florida’s bid to host the nation’s first built-from-scratch high-speed line seems likely to win out.
With California, Florida has presented itself as a top competitor in the race for some of the nation’s $8 billion in stimulus money for fast trains. The state’s initial proposal has a $3.5 billion corridor between Tampa and Orlando along I-4 being constructed for an opening by 2014; it has asked Washington to cover $2.6 billion of those funds. The remaining costs would be covered by affected municipalities and corporations. Though the project lacks direct connections to downtown Orlando or Lakeland and would likely encourage sprawl in areas around Disney’s theme parks, it offers the possibility of up to 168 mph electric rail service and more than three million annual riders by 2025. An extension to Miami along the east coast could be built by 2017, the year before California’s phase one opens for its first riders.
Mr. LaHood’s suggestion earlier this year that Florida must fund its local rail systems before it is considered for high-speed funding encouraged the state assembly to hold a special week-long session on the matter, beginning yesterday. Most prominent in its goals: creating a new Florida Rail Enterprise organization that would operate as a division of the state DOT. FRE would develop a statewide intercity rail system and manage all of the state’s commuter rail lines, including Miami’s troubled Tri-Rail, which has been threatened with a shut-down if it is not adequately funded. Under the law, Tri-Rail would receive $15 million in state money annually for its survival.
Most relevant for Orlando-area residents, FRE would ensure the construction of the 61-mile SunRail corridor, which would connect the city’s northern and southern suburbs at a cost of $1.2 billion. Governor Charlie Crist (R), who has become a supporter of the project as he runs for Senate, sees it as a stepping stone towards high-speed rail. Not approving a bill supporting the project would be a “catastrophic” loss for the state according to the governor; indeed, it would mean Florida would lose its federal New Starts commitment to the project and it would probably be eliminated for consideration for the fast rail system. Politically, he would love to be able to announce a massive grant for the state; so would Mr. LaHood, since President Obama undoubtedly wants to repeat his 2008 victory in Florida in 2012.
Of course, passage of the bill won’t be as easy as it sounds, since similar legislation has failed in the state senate twice over the past two years. Though Senate President Jeff Atwater (R) claims he has the votes, he faces some in-party disgruntlement. Lakeland Senator Paula Dockery (R), who has been one of the major anti-rail advocates, continues to fight party leadership, arguing that the SunRail project is basically a pay-off to track owner CSX in the form of a massive $200 million-a-year liability policy for accidents on the line. Ms. Dockery is currently running for Governor against state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R), who is a supporter of the project. Ms. Dockery hopes to excited anti-tax tea partyers to her cause and win the campaign in 2010.
Meanwhile, the senate’s 14 Democrats (there are a total of 40 members in the body) are being pressured by the AFL-CIO to reject the plan. The union argues that the project does not guarantee stable, well-paying jobs. So it could be a close vote.
The senate’s passage of the proposal would basically ensure the creation of the FRE, since the house has signed through similar legislation repeatedly and will do the same this year. Mr. Crist will sign the bill into law.
If Florida passes the legislation, its application for high-speed rail funds is virtually assured acceptance by the Department of Transportation. If its proposal and California’s, at $4.7 billion, are chosen for full grants, that leaves $700 million for the rest of the country. That is, until the U.S. Congress expands its commitment to high-speed rail by dedicating $1 billion or more for the mode in the annual transportation appropriations process, a decision expected to be made early next year with the support of strong majorities in both houses.