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Editorial: Amtrak, SunRail must solve Florida differences

(The following editorial appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on August 29, 2010.)

ORLANDO, Fla. — When — or should we say, if — SunRail runs as envisioned, it will serve commuters along a mainly vertical line from DeLand to Poinciana.

At least that's what we keep telling ourselves, because for months SunRail's been running in circles.

State lawmakers signed off on SunRail in December. And Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer confidently told us Friday that groundbreaking on the transit system should commence by February, with the trains carrying passengers some 30 months later.

But a maddening inability of negotiators to get SunRail and the train operators now using the tracks to agree on exactly how they'll manage liability issues later has us hedging our bets.

In fact, if officials with SunRail, Amtrak and CSX, which is selling the tracks to the state, don't soon come to terms on establishing responsibility in case of accidents, Central Floridians might not be hopping trains any time near the summer of 2013, the latest projected run date for SunRail.

Put the project off, and the thousands of construction workers who need jobs in this economy won't get them. The opportunity the state has to enter into some favorable work contracts could be lost as the economy eventually recovers. And the sorely needed relief SunRail would provide commuters from I-4 bottlenecks won't arrive.

Some of the squabbles separating the players finally seem close to getting resolved. Those near the negotiations say CSX appears close to satisfying some concerns Amtrak has about losing protections against lawsuits while the tracks are being readied for SunRail. The two train operators need to resolve them by September — next month — when the Surface Transportation Board is supposed to review the SunRail deal.

Central Florida's rail advocates in Congress need to get this problem solved. Much of that burden rests on Rep. Corrine Brown, the Democrat who chairs the congressional subcommittee on rail and whose district is home to CSX.

Rep. John Mica of Winter Park, the ranking Republican member of the House transportation committee, must use his influence with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican and a fan of SunRail. Amtrak gets to make a recommendation on SunRail to the federal STB, and it would be unwise for Amtrak to antagonize Mr. LaHood.

Approval from the panel also is needed to then trigger a funding agreement in November that would allow actual construction to begin along the 61-mile SunRail route.

But what's driving SunRail supporters to distraction — and making them fear its trains won't run any time soon — are the demands Amtrak President Joseph Boardman has made on the state, despite the company's need to remain in the good graces of the feds and Mr. LaHood.

Mr. Boardman has threatened to scuttle SunRail unless it shields Amtrak from lawsuits and claims in case of accidents involving the two carriers, even though Amtrak operates without those protections on tracks it shares with Tri-Rail in South Florida.

Florida transportation officials say Mr. Boardman has softened his threats. Those close to negotiations say that's due to state assurances that state leaders will work to give Amtrak "an improved liability agreement." The Legislature would provide it.

Central Florida needs SunRail. But because the Legislature needed three tries to pass SunRail, we dread the time legislators could take to "improve" a liability deal with Amtrak, a deal that Amtrak might use as muscle against future commuter rail systems.

Lawmakers mustn't give Amtrak everything it asks. A cash-strapped state like Florida has no business assuming all the risk for a federally subsidized carrier.

Monday, August 30, 2010

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