By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Dec. 7, 2009……….As Gov. Charlie Crist met Monday with wavering senators on the rail bill, the measure narrowly got over its first Senate hurdle after easily passing in the House earlier in the day.
The usually hands-off-the-legislative-process governor – who said last week that voting against the rail bill would be “indefensible” – appeared to have plenty of reason to be concerned as the Senate Transportation Committee late Monday narrowly passed the legislation 5-4.
The Senate squeaker came after the House on Monday morning passed with an 84-25 vote the rail package, which includes provisions allowing the SunRail commuter rail project in Orland, funding for TriRail in South Florida and the creation of a statewide rail authority. The easy vote in the House provided little solace to backers of the legislation – the true battle has always been in the Senate, where votes appeared to be falling off, making supporters clearly nervous.
“We really don’t know exactly what will happen in the Senate,” said House Speaker Larry Cretul from the chamber dais moments after the House vote.
Supporters touted the funding package as a “transformative” action that would propel the Orlando area into the ranks of other great cities with commuter rail, while shoring up funding for Tri-Rail and potentially providing a windfall of federal cash to assist the state in finally establishing high speed rail.
“I think this may be the week Florida grows up,” Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, said. “This will be a landmark decision moving our state toward addressing modern, urban issues. We know from history that you are not going to be able to connect vibrant metropolitan cities without rail.”
But there was growing pessimism about the whether the rail bill can reach the light at the end of the tunnel in the Senate.
To clear the Senate panel, legislative leaders had to replace ailing Sen. Larcenia Bullard, a reliable yes vote who suffered a heart attack last week, with Sen. Mike Fasano. Otherwise, the plan would have been derailed on a tie vote with Sens. Paula Dockery, Gary Siplin, Arthenia Joyner and Carey Baker all voting no.
Supporters sought to paint the legislation as a statewide rail policy, but opponents focused primarily on the controversial provisions of the bill that would allow the Department of Transportation to buy 61 miles of existing track from CSX Corp. to run the central Florida proposal for commuter rail known. In doing so, they raised familiar qualms about the cost, liability provisions and the planned route of the commuter rail.
“Make no mistake, this is the SunRail bill,” leading critic Sen. Dockery said during committee debate Monday.
But new committee member Fasano said the criticism on cost was misguided because the money for SunRail was included in previous Department of Transportation five-year planning.
“We’ve already been funding SunRail,” he said. “To suggest that this bill involves funding for SunRail is nonsense. That has already been done by the Legislature and the Metropolitan Planning Organizations, so anyone saying we are trying to do that now, you’re a little too late. There is $218 million in the (DOT) work plan…and many members of this panel voted for it.”
Senate rail sponsor Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, focused on the provisions of the bill that would provide funding for the existing South Florida Tri-Rail train using excess dollars in the state transportation trust fund.
“If this doesn’t pass, there is no Tri-Rail,” Ring said as he argued for the bill in the Transportation Committee. “The workers are out of work, but more importantly, 15,000 riders are out of their rides. We don’t focus enough on the riders.”
As the Senate panel was locked in a lengthy debate about the rail package that at times turned testy, Crist’s office confirmed he was pulling individual senators into his office to impress upon them the need to vote for the passenger rail bill. Crist scheduled meetings with Sens. Durrell Peaden, Nancy Detert and Dennis Jones, though it remains unclear how much of an effect he had on opposition that appears to be digging in instead of being open to compromise.
At least one of Crist’s guests, Peaden, said he was still planning to vote against the bill to spur passenger rail systems in the state despite the gubernatorial pep talk.
“We need two lanes, four lanes and maybe eight lanes in some places,” in his Panhandle district said Peaden. “We don’t need a train. You ever sit in traffic in my hometown of Crestview on the weekend when everybody dumps out of Atlanta and Birmingham? Why do I want a train?”
Crist is looking for Senate votes for the measure to put state money into local commuter rail in an effort to get federal buy-in for broader rail projects. Peaden, a Republican, said he understood Crist’s need to “twist arms” but couldn’t be swayed.
“You got to twist hard when you twist a short, fat boy’s arm,” said Peaden. “You can’t sell something like that over where I’m from.” Peaden said he made his position clear to Crist. “I can’t paint it any prettier than that,” he said. “We understand each other.”
And another senator who voted for SunRail last year but came out against the plan when lawmakers convened the special session, Sen. Carey Baker, said he hadn’t heard from Crist.
“He hasn’t called me,” Baker said after voting against the bill in the transportation committee. “He has my number.”
Baker, who has said he is opposed to the creation of new statewide rail panels and the tie-in with possible high-speed rail, suggested his vote could be won back if lawmakers scale the bill back to its original form – a SunRail only bill.
“This issue started in one place, but it has moved beyond that,” he said. “I wouldn’t think it couldn’t go back. I’ve been in this business 10 years. There are plenty of bills that I started out as a ‘no’ on and ended up as a ‘yes’ and there are plenty that I started out as a ‘yes’ on and ended up as a ‘no.’”