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Editorial: The future of Florida’s high-speed rail rests with its Legislature

(The following editorial appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on October 21, 2009.)

ORLANDO, Fla. — SunRail's back on track. Now it's a question of whether it gets where it needs to go.

Gov. Charlie Crist and Senate President Jeff Atwater helped right the project on Monday, informally calling for lawmakers to approve the 61-mile commuter-rail system for metro Orlando in a special session in Tallahassee Dec. 7-11.

But the governor and Senate president likely won't move to formally call a special session unless there's first a consensus among legislators on the subjects that would come before them. And it doesn't yet exist on SunRail.

Twice before, legislators have said the state can't afford it, citing its cost, liability issues and the state's weak economy.

Yet this time, other forces may compel a different outcome.

Florida's now suffering 11 percent unemployment. Many more people fear losing their jobs. That should make it harder than ever for SunRail's opponents to tell their constituents they rejected a project that would create thousands of jobs.

They'd also have to explain to voters that Washington's actually on track to pay more of SunRail's cost, and that the state likely won't be assuming as much risk in case of accidents as previously thought.

Should they nevertheless think to refuse SunRail a third time, they'll also have to tell their constituents why they elected to make it harder for thousands of South Florida residents to get to their jobs. That's because Tri-Rail, the commuter-train serving residents from Miami to West Palm Beach, needs more funding or it will have to dramatically cut service. It could get that funding if the Legislature approved a regional $2 rental-car surcharge.

But SunRail's backers might not support the rental-car surcharge if Tri-Rail's backers in South Florida don't back SunRail.

If a majority of lawmakers say no to SunRail and Tri-Rail, they'll also then have to explain to voters why they botched the chance to put thousands more Floridians to work by building a high-speed rail system that could run from Orlando to Tampa, and later to Miami.

Florida has applied for $2.5 billion in federal money. But Washington has said Florida won't be a contender for its high-speed-rail funding unless it first shows a commitment to train travel by approving SunRail and supporting Tri-Rail. And it needs to do so in a special session before January, by which time Washington will announce which states can build high-speed rail.

It all may be too much for lawmakers to oppose this time, especially for legislative leaders seeking higher office.

South Florida Democratic Sens. Dan Gelber and Dave Aronberg, for example, have battled SunRail. Both, however, are running for state attorney general. Imagine the difficulty they'd have telling voters from Tampa to Orlando to Miami how they helped kill SunRail and, because of that, also imperiled Tri-Rail.

Imagine Mr. Atwater, who's running to become Florida's chief financial officer, telling voters he can look out for their interests if he couldn't even get enough of his colleagues to embrace train systems that can boost the state's economy for years to come.

And imagine SunRail's chief opponent, Sen. Paula Dockery. She's considering running for governor. But on what platform? That in order to stop SunRail she was willing to sacrifice Tri-Rail and high-speed rail?

How much better -- and easier -- for her and others wanting to become Florida's next leaders to support all three worthy projects.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

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