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Recent developments might give SunRail commuter train momentum

(The following story by Dan Tracy appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on October 3, 2009.)

ORLANDO, Fla. — The proposed SunRail commuter train through Central Florida, wrecked twice in the state Senate, might be regenerating some significant steam.

Supporters point to a series of seemingly unrelated developments that — taken together — appear to favor the $1.2 billion venture finally becoming a reality.

"I think we have the momentum," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, one of the leading proponents of the 61.5-mile system that would link DeLand in Volusia County with downtown Orlando and Poinciana in Osceola County.

Granted, Dyer was optimistic earlier this year, when a liability policy necessary for the project lost 23-16 in the Senate, the same chamber that killed it in 2008.

One big difference this time is the buzz being created by Florida's bid for $2.5 billion from the federal government to build a high-speed train from Orlando to Tampa.

The application for that train was transmitted Friday afternoon, shortly after a rally held by almost 100 supporters at Orlando City Hall. They unveiled a new marketing campaign called "Life at 128 mph" — the speed at which the train could travel.

They also praised SunRail as a potential complement to the high-speed operation.

That's a message the secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood, is expected to reinforce next week when he meets in Orlando with state transit officials.

Dyer and others have been making that connection for months, arguing the systems could feed passengers to each other.

In May, LaHood was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying Florida and California were "way ahead" of other areas in the country in seeking high-speed funding from an $8 billion fund set up by Congress and the Obama administration.

But there's more fueling Dyer's enthusiasm, including the election of a new state senator in Jacksonville, a change in leadership in the Florida chapter of the AFL-CIO union and a new liability agreement reached in Massachusetts by the CSX railroad company, which owns the tracks SunRail would use.

Here's what it all could mean to SunRail:

• Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, died July 26 of pancreatic cancer. He was a consistent vote against SunRail. Uber-lobbyist and former House speaker John Thrasher won the Republican primary to replace King and faces three write-in candidates in a Tuesday special election.

Thrasher is a SunRail supporter and, if elected, could use his connections to sway other senators over to the proposal. "Any increase helps," said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. "We still have to get there [to 21 votes]."

• The AFL-CIO, which is influential with the 14 Democrats in the Senate, has elected a new leader, Mike Williams, who heads the Florida Building Trades Council. He replaces Cynthia Hall of United Teachers of Dade.

One of the arguments made against SunRail during the last session was that the train was too expensive during a time that teachers were being laid off and education budgets slashed. With Williams now in charge, SunRail backers will push employment, saying the train would create thousands of jobs that could be taken by unionized tradespeople such as electricians, carpenters and plumbers. Williams also is a longtime associate of Dyer's.

AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin said the organization likely will vote on whether to change its position on SunRail soon.

• CSX, which sold tracks to Massachusetts for a commuter train, has agreed to contribute $500,000 to help defray the cost of the liability insurance that the state's transit authority has to carry.

If an accident occurs between a commuter train and freight train and CSX is clearly at fault because of willful misconduct, the railroad will be responsible to pay the deductible on that policy, up to a maximum of $7.5 million per incident.

Critics of SunRail assailed the Florida plan because the state would pay most costs if CSX caused the wreck. The Massachusetts agreement could assuage that concern if it's adopted in Florida. CSX spokesman Gary Sease said, "Each transaction stands on its own merits. We are open to discussions in Florida on the terms of the Massachusetts liability provisions where we reached a mutually acceptable solution."

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and SunRail's leading legislative proponent, said he thinks such an arrangement would work in Florida and said it helps give him "a renewed sense of confidence."

Constantine is hopeful SunRail could be taken up during a special session in coming months, though there's no consensus on a possible date.

Monday, October 5, 2009

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