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Tri-Rail fund shortfall could end soon

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A special lawmaking session on high-speed and commuter rail inched closer as legislative leaders and the governor said they are ready to tap surplus money in the transportation budget rather than raise taxes on rental cars to help pay for the transit projects, the Miami Herald reports. The surplus money -- about $76 million over the next two years -- should be enough to help fill a hole in South Florida's Tri-Rail system.

Also, opposition to Central
Florida’s SunRail project started to thaw in the Florida Senate, where the
transit system could now be one vote shy of winning passage, according to a
Herald/Times vote count.

Federal transportation
officials have told Florida officials that the state needs to do a better job
supporting Tri-Rail and SunRail to increase the state’s chances of winning up
to $2.5 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail project.

The federal government has
been besieged with requests from various states for high-speed rail money. U.S.
Department of Transportation officials said Florida’s support for the commuter
rail systems is just a "factor" in awarding the grant.

Still, legislative leaders
and Gov. Charlie Crist say the state needs to do more for commuter rail. Crist
said last week that he wanted to issue a call for a winter special session by
Thanksgiving.

But despite Crist’s
optimism about a special session, he hasn’t put much effort into persuading
rank-and-file legislators in the Florida Senate where the SunRail project has
died for two years. Seven Republican senators who voted against SunRail last
year told the Herald/Times that neither Crist nor Senate President Jeff Atwater
had called to lobby them for the project.

Crist noted that Senate and
House leaders like the idea of using existing surplus tax money to fund
Tri-Rail.

During discussions last
week, the House balked at a proposal to raise rental car surcharges by $2. Last
week, state economists bailed the Legislature out by estimating that the state
would take in more fuel tax money than had been anticipated: $19 million more
this budget year and $57 million next year. The surplus — forecast to be $376
million over a decade — would provide a long-term solution to some of
Tri-Rail’s budget woes. Some of the money could also plug a hole in the SunRail
budget that lawmakers opened last spring when they raided a state
transportation trust fund.

Behind the scenes, rail
proponents appear to have 20 votes in favor of SunRail in the Senate. That’s up
four votes since last spring. But it’s one vote shy of securing passage in the
40-member chamber.

Many lawmakers are
concerned with the long-term cost of SunRail — up to $1.2 billion — as well
as the fact that the owner of the rail line, CSX, wanted the state to indemnify
it in the case of an accident.

Florida’s transportation
secretary, Stephanie Kopelousos, said CSX is willing to renegotiate and has
showed a willingness to pay up to $10 million in cases of "willful and wanton"
negligence. But nothing’s in writing yet and it’s unclear if that’s enough to
ease Senate concerns.

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