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Editorial: Hope for billions in federal aid gives high-speed rail new life

(The following editorial appeared on the Sarasota Herald-Tribune website on October 25, 2009.)

SARASOTA, Fla. — The chance to accelerate the development of high-speed rail in Florida is about to leave the station, but the Legislature might catch it if it hurries.

The Obama administration is dangling $2.5 billion in economic-stimulus money to help Florida fund the construction of a high-speed link between Tampa and Orlando and to plan a second leg from Orlando to Miami.

But not so fast: Federal transportation officials want the state to show a commitment to commuter-rail systems, such as South Florida's existing Tri-Rail and Central Florida's proposed SunRail -- a commitment that has been lacking in Tallahassee so far.

And, the federal officials say, they want that commitment by the end of this year or the stimulus money -- along with the needed economic boost and the many jobs the project could generate -- will go elsewhere.

A record of indifference

Until now, the Legislature has never shown much enthusiasm for high-speed rail, despite the potential for such a system to alleviate traffic on Florida's busy interstates, save countless gallons of gas, cut pollution and reduce the highway risk to life and limb.

In 2000, when Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment calling for a high-speed rail system, legislators set up a supervisory authority but declined to properly fund it. After 2004, when voters, at the urging of then-Gov. Jeb Bush, repealed the constitutional provision, the Legislature generally ignored high-speed rail as a transportation option.

But $2.5 billion in federal money and the jobs it would create don't grow on orange trees, and they aren't being produced by the state's still moribund tourism, real estate and construction industries.

So the federal ultimatum has set off a scramble among state politicians in Washington and Tallahassee. Florida's new, temporary U.S. senator, George LeMieux, has taken up the cause. Last week he called legislative leaders to Capitol Hill to meet with fellow Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Department of Transportation officials.

"Shame on us if we don't take advantage of this historic opportunity," LeMieux said after the meeting. "Building commuter and high-speed rail lines will create thousands of jobs, it will stimulate our economy, and it will mean transformative change for our metropolitan areas."

Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater -- who attended the meeting with Sen. J.D. Alexander, chairman of the state Senate's Ways and Means Committee, and Democratic leader Sen. Al Lawson -- called immediately for a special legislative session to deal with the commuter-rail proposal. The session, if House Speaker Larry Cretul agrees, will be in December, when legislators will be in Tallahassee for committee hearings.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who named LeMieux to the Senate and is running to replace him after next year's election, endorsed the session: "It's necessary because, No. 1, we need transportation arteries for Florida."

Despite the rising chorus, gaining the crucial commitment to the commuter systems won't be easy.

Legislators have previously rejected a proposed $2 surcharge on car rentals to finance commuter-rail projects. That was despite the possibility that the state might have to give back some $256 million in federal aid if it does not provide a continuing funding source for Tri-Rail.

SunRail is even more problematic. The system would operate on CSX tracks in the Orlando area, and the most recent proposal called for holding the freight line harmless in any legal action resulting from the firm's negligence. CSX also wants $150 million for use of its tracks and another $500 million for improvements to CSX facilities. The Florida Senate rightly rejected that proposal.

Long-awaited commitment

Atwater, however, said federal officials might be flexible in how they view the state's commitment.

"This is about rail in Florida; it's not about SunRail specifically," Atwater said after the Washington meeting. "That's what their communication was to us today: 'Look, we need to see long-term commitment on rail activity in Florida if we're going to make this investment.'"

Rail advocates, knowing that Florida can't pour enough asphalt to handle its growth in population and traffic, have tried for years to gain that commitment. At last, the Legislature may be ready to get on board.

Monday, October 26, 2009

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