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Insurance issue may postpone Amtrak for Florida east coast run

(The following story by Rebecca Basu appeared on the Florida Today website on August 28, 2010.)

MELBOURNE, Fla. The state and Amtrak's inability to reach an agreement regarding insurance coverage for a stretch of the proposed Jacksonville-Miami passenger train route could delay the anticipated 2011 start date of the project, for which three stops are slated in Brevard County.

For months, Amtrak officials in Washington and Florida Department of Transportation officials have been haggling about liability for several proposed Amtrak rail projects in Florida, including the route with stops in Cocoa, Titusville and Melbourne.

At issue is the portion of the 350-mile route known as the South Florida Rail Corridor, which covers 81 miles from West Palm Beach to Miami and is owned by the state. Amtrak wants "no fault liability," for each party to be responsible for its own financial burdens associated with costs from accidents that involve injury or death to employees or passengers.

The issue will have to be resolved legislatively when lawmakers convene next year.

"The only way we can have no fault liability language is to get it legislatively," said Kevin Thibault, director of FDOT's rail division. "For those in the communities that want this, it will impact moving forward on the time frame we all though we were moving on."

If successful in getting stimulus funding for the project, which should be known in October, the state was planning to ramp up the project in 2011, with trains running along the east coast by 2012. With the Legislature's involvement, that schedule could be pushed back.

Amtrak has a national policy of no-fault liability that is an industry-wide standard, said Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero, and is how Amtrak currently operates in Florida with its service to Miami through Tampa and Orlando.

Liability issues are hampering all of Amtrak's proposed expansion plans. In some cases the company is trying to negotiate "stop gap measures" with the state such as for SunRail, the commuter rail project in Central Florida. But even talks about SunRail have met with difficulty, as Amtrak issued a media statement recently saying that "no substantive progress" had been made in resolving liability with FDOT officials.

The Jacksonville-Miami route's development depends on getting an award of $250 million in federal stimulus funding. Funding would pay for eight passenger stations, upgrading tracks, improving railroad crossings, buying necessary land and new passenger cars.

Currently only freight travels from Jacksonville to West Palm Beach. Tri Rail is a passenger route that runs along the South Florida Rail Corridor and is owned and operated by South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

State Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, a rail proponent, said he would support a legislative fix and would file a bill if necessary.

"We should be able to go to the Legislature and fix that problem," Altman said. "I'm optimistic, given the commitment we have for responsible tort reform. The liability concerns Amtrak has communicated are incredibly reasonable."

Restoring passenger rail service along the east coast is important, Altman added, for the transportation solutions it offers and economic boost it could provide to tourism and job creation.

Among anticipated economic benefits touted in the stimulus application filed Aug. 6 are 6,334 indirect, permanent jobs and $259 million in annual earnings by 2021 for the region.

Bob Kamm, director of the Space Coast Metropolitan Planning Organization, expressed frustration that the project could be delayed and said the issue could have been addressed during a special session lawmakers met in late last year.

"FDOT has not explained adequately why they're taking this hard line, why they believe they are protecting the public's interest in not reaching an agreement with Amtrak," Kamm said. "I'm not saying they're right or wrong. All I know is the consequence is not what we want."

Monday, August 30, 2010

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