Florida Convenes Special Legislative Session for Sunrail, Tri-Rail, High-Speed Rail

» 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.

8 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Adam

    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.

    Don’t forget too that the House 2009 appropriations bill had $4 billion for HSR this year (versus $1.2bn in the senate). If they keep that amount in the omnibus appropriations bill that will have to be passed in the next few weeks, then it would probably give DOT and FRA even more incentive to fully fund CA and FL HSR since there’d still be a good chunk left over ($4.7 bn) to spread out across the country. This would even leave enough money to fund say half of the midwest and southeast proposals.

  • Kind of surprising to see Florida get its act together. I don’t see why other states don’t do this to increase their chances of getting funds. Great that it is going to provide a stable source of funding for the commuter rail as well.

    I really think Florida might walk away with all the money they ask for. I really don’t think this is a bad thing either for 3 reasons.

    1) It is the fourth most populated state.

    2) There is a lot of people who can’t drive there. Think of all the elderly people. Florida has the highest percentage of people over 65 of any state with 17.6% of the total state population.

    3) This is the best possible marketing opportunity to sell the general public on on investing in true HSR. I say this because it would be the quickest project probably to get up and running which would allow the word to get out quicker. Also it is a huge tourist destination for the domestic tourists. Many people will visit the state and end up riding it. They will no doubt be impressed and go home asking their state for the same.

    That being said I would never want to live in Florida. However, I feel like it is inherently unfair to give into all of their request with so many great projects out there.

  • Jake

    It’s a shame that they’re not going to connect to downtown Orlando.

    Tampa will benefit sooo much more from this as a city b/c of the urban development. They’ll learn the lesson eventually, I hope.

  • Ocean Railroader

    If Florida gets to build their first section of high speed rail and it has eletric catenary in it then it would be good in that it would set up a base for the catenary from the north to head to link up in the future.

  • DBX

    I’m actually beginning to like the politics of this plan. If indeed California and Florida get the lion’s share of the money, it’s a bold move by the Obama Administration for several reasons:

    1) It would establish the precedent that new rail starts should get the same kind of proportion of federal money as new highway starts.

    2) It would fast track true high speed rail, hopefully creating an “I want one too” effect among other states.

    3) It would be a wakeup call for Amtrak to get its act together, quite explicitly bypassing the company where a more incremental approach would have brought them front-and-center.

    4) It would be a wakeup call for state and local politicians whose approach to rail has been definitely from the school of half-measures

    5) It would help to lock in the California scheme, which I think is extremely vulnerable due to the state’s financial situation.

    Less predictable is what kind of political dynamic this degree of concentration of the grants would create. Hopefully, item 2 above would take hold; I wouldn’t want other states to get discouraged. I think, therefore, that it’s also important for a substantial grant to go to an incremental project, such as in the Midwest, that would deliver a major improvement on an existing route. Let’s say funding the equipment purchases and infrastructure upgrades to enable Chicago-Milwaukee to speed up from its current 90 minutes to an even hour and to increase frequency to hourly or half-hourly, and maybe bringing in Madison as a feeder route to Milwaukee and/or Metra’s UP-NW service direct to Chicago.

  • Tri-Rail needs to die, as a transit system, but Tri-Rail needs to live, as a cautionary tale about how building the wrong line can doom you for decades. I’m kind of torn.

  • Kyle from Miami

    Tri-Rail is extremely successful M1EK, what are you talking about? It’s ridership has grown every year, and with future connections to more Metrorail stations, and to the new Miami Central Station, it will continue to gain ridership.

    There’s currently a plan to build a new Tri-Rail line from Downtown Miami at Government Center to Downtown Fort Lauderdale.

  • Kyle, after 20 years, Tri-Rail has ridership on a 70-mile line through a larger population shed than most big cities that competes poorly with the ridership much shorter light-rail lines have accomplished in year one through much smaller cities.

    It saw ridership grow during the $4/gallon gas spike, as did every transit system in the country, bus or rail; but has not sustained that ridership, and more importantly, unlike good light rail starts in Houston and Dallas and elsewhere, has not motivated the public to support it with tax dollars.

    It’s the wrong line in the wrong place – it would have been better to wait 10 more years to run on the FEC corridor than to have spent all this money and have nothing but the current state to show for it.

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