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Florida Senate president confident in passage of rail legislation

(The following story by Bill Kaczor, The Associated Press, appeared in the Herald Tribune December 5, 2009.)

Senate President Jeff Atwater says he is confident his chamber will reverse its prior opposition to legislation that would clear the way for a commuter rail system in central Florida.

Identical House and Senate bills being considered at a special legislative session that began Thursday also include up to $15 million each year in additional state money for the financially troubled Tri-Rail commuter line in South Florida.

Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said the bills respond to at least some issues that twice before doomed similar proposals in the Senate after they had been passed in the House.

One difference is the rail legislation is now being sold as a step for possibly obtaining $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money to also build a high-speed system between Tampa and Orlando with a possible future link to Miami.

"My conversations with members over the last week have been that they wanted to see something bigger and bolder," Atwater said. "When they have a chance to hear all of the bill and see the elements of this bill that we're looking bigger, farther down the road."

Atwater and other rail advocates argue the bills (HB 1B, SB 2B) also would establish a framework for future commuter service in other urban areas by creating two new entities.

The proposed Statewide Passenger Rail Commission would advise the Department of Transportation and the Florida Rail Enterprise would oversee development of commuter lines as well as a high-speed system.

Gov. Charlie Crist said he, too, is confident the legislation will pass because it would create thousands of new jobs desperately needed in a state with an 11.2 percent unemployment rate.

"Voting against this would be absolutely catastrophic," Crist said.

The legislation faces stiff opposition from labor unions that argue 95 union rail workers would lose their jobs or take pay cuts. That is because the plan calls for the state to purchase existing rail lines from freight hauler CSX, which now employs those workers. The state would hire contractors to fill the jobs.

The number of workers affected could grow into the thousands as additional commuter systems are developed, said Florida AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin.

Atwater said he has met with the unions and that talks will continue on seeking an accord.

The unions are a key constituency for Democrats, who could hold the legislation's fate in their hands. Republicans have solid majorities in both chambers, but past opposition has been bipartisan.

Monday, December 7, 2009

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