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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Florida legislators close to SunRail deal

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After two embarrassing defeats, the SunRail commuter train could be on the verge of winning approval in the Florida state Legislature, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Supporters are lining up votes and drafting a bill for a special session that could be held in Tallahassee during the week of Dec. 7.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said he is "extremely optimistic" about the chances of passage for the $1.2-billion project that would link DeLand in Volusia County with downtown Orlando and Poinciana in Osceola County.

Though no SunRail backers will publicly say they have a done deal, they are confident of getting more than the 21 votes needed to win in the 40-member Senate.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Speaker-Designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, both contend they have enough votes in their chamber to approve the train. But Cretul has said he first wants to see the finer points of the rail legislation along with a Senate vote count before joining Senate President Jeff Atwater to formally schedule the special session.

Although Dyer was hopeful both times the plan was shot down in the state Senate - most recently in April - a lot has changed in recent months. Most prominently, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has repeatedly told Florida's elected officials that their chances of winning any stimulus money for a proposed high-speed train connecting Orlando with Tampa would be virtually nil without first showing support for SunRail and the already operational Tri-Rail commuter train in South Florida.

U.S. Sen. George LeMieux echoed that sentiment Wednesday after a meeting with area leaders at the Central Florida Partnership in downtown Orlando.

LeMieux conceded he did not have a firm commitment for the high-speed money, but he said approving SunRail would be extremely helpful. "Give me the ammunition as a United States senator by passing SunRail," he said.

Such warnings have led Atwater and Crist to say they would support a special session where legislators would provide operating money for the financially strapped Tri-Rail and endorse a liability arrangement for SunRail.

Those votes, they believe, could keep Florida in the running in the highly competitive high-speed race. Florida alone wants $2.5 billion from an account that only holds $8 billion.

In all, federal authorities are sifting through 45 requests from 24 states seeking a total of $50 billion. An additional 214 applications from 34 states are asking for $7 billion for planning and smaller projects.

Dyer has been working with the AFL-CIO, too. The union has been against SunRail but appears to be softening its stand. AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin said his organization could support SunRail if a request for $270 million in stimulus money is granted by the federal government and the union protections that often go along with such allocations are included.

A union endorsement, Dyers and others think, could bring with it many of the 11 Democratic votes that went against SunRail last spring. The final tally was 16 for and 23 against (one senator missed the ballot).

One senator who continues to fight SunRail is Paula Dockery, the Republican from Lakeland who also is running for governor. Dockery could not be reached, but she told the Ledger in Lakeland last week that "there has been no change in the very bad terms that the Florida Department of Transportation and CSX agreed upon many years ago in a backroom deal."

But CSX has indicated it is willing to give on the liability deal and model it after one the company recently signed in Massachusetts, which also bought tracks for a commuter train. That arrangement, which includes CSX helping to pay for insurance and shifts additional liability onto the rail company and away from the state, could act as a template not just for SunRail but for any future commuter projects in Florida, said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

"To me," Gardiner said, "this is about rail in Florida. We're either in or out. I think most people would rather be in."

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