By KEITH LAING, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Mar. 4, 2009……….Over strong objections from its biggest critic, the legislative roll of the proposed SunRail commuter train in the Orlando area stayed on track Wednesday, clearing a key Senate panel despite contentious debate.
By a 6-3 vote, the bill (SB 1212) that would clear the way for the Department of Transportation to buy 61 miles of existing track from CSX Corp. to run commuter trains in the Orlando area was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee. The bill was sponsored by Sens. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, and Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who chairs the transportation committee.
Constantine hailed the measure as a job creator and congestion reliever.
“We’re in tough times, everybody knows that, but before you, you have a bill that provides economic stimulus, builds new transportation modes throughout the state, and protects the environment,” Constantine said.
SunRail advocates have said that the proposed commuter train would create 13,000 jobs and generate $4.6 billion for the construction sector over 20 years. Supporters have also said the train would spur 113,000 construction projects within a half-mile range of 17 stations that would be built between DeLand and Poinciana and would remove the number of cars that fill one lane of Interstate 4 during weekday rush hours.
A companion measure (HPCB 09-01) has already cleared the House Economic Development and Community Affairs Council and is ready for a full floor vote. The Senate bill will now head to the Judiciary Committee.
Leading the opposition in the transportation committee Wednesday was Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who voted against the measure after unsuccessfully introducing 11 amendments. Dockery has long been against the deal that would create SunRail, though she often says that she is not opposed to the train itself.
Opposition to the measure is partly based on the fact that it will shift freight traffic elsewhere – primarily Dockery’s hometown of Lakeland. Dockery and other opponents also complain about the measure’s indemnification arrangement – a “no fault” plan that will have the state and CSX each responsible for its own equipment, workers and passengers no matter who causes an accident. That puts the state on the hook for some of the liability it doesn’t currently have. CSX says the sale of the rails is contingent on that agreement, meaning the project relies on the bill passing.
“The bill before us is not about commuter rail,” Dockery said during the debate. “It’s about shifting liability off a private freight rail company and onto the taxpayers of the state of Florida. This bill does not say we’re going to have SunRail in central Florida. Voting against this bill doesn’t mean you’re against commuter rail, and I’m not.”
The commuter rail proposal was one of the Legislature’s biggest fights last year, as opponents of re-routing freight trains through Lakeland, including Dockery, and trial lawyers opposed to lawsuit limits on railroad contractors killed the plan. But the $1.2 billion project gained a high profile supporter this year in Gov. Charlie Crist, who largely stayed above the fray in the effort to get the project moving last year. Also, the bill this year was changed to remove the limits on suits against private contractors working on the railroad, removing trial lawyer opposition.
Dockery said Wednesday that she was still angered by the cost of the project and plans for the state to share legal responsibility for accidents with the freight company.
Dockery said that her amendments, which were all greeted unfavorably by the bill’s sponsors, were meant to improve SunRail, not derail it. Among the amendments introduced by Dockery were measures that would have eliminated state liability for accidents that occurred in rail yards and that involved non-passengers.
And Dockery strongly disagreed that Lakeland’s problems had been solved.
“I am Lakeland,” Dockery said. “I am the senator from Lakeland. Lakeland asked me two years ago to work on their behalf. Lakeland has tried to be good neighbors to our friends in the Orlando area. Our problem is not with commuter rail, our problem is with taking the brunt of this.”
Dockery was joined in opposition to the SunRail deal by Sens. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, though neither was as vocal as the senator from the 15th district. Still, Siplin defended Dockery’s interest in the details of the SunRail proposal.
“We’re all senators here,” Siplin said. “I would expect that this body would give me deference on any issue that affects my district. I would ask that you would give comity and consideration to Sen. Dockery, because when we get to the floor, it’s all about unity.”
However, when the vote was called, Dockery did not find much additional support, though she said she expected a different result in later roll calls on SunRail.
“This committee is not indicative of entire Senate,” Dockery said. “The make-up of this committee is heavily constituted by central Florida.”
Dockery predicted she would have more success opposing the SunRail deal as it moves through the Legislature, though she acknowledged the battle could be tough.
“The other side of this issue has at least 100 lobbyists,” she said “I find myself out here alone as the voice trying to educate.”