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SunRail In Trouble: Article from The Orlando Sentinel

01 May 2009 12:46 PM | Jackson McQuigg (Administrator),0,3072188.story

So long, SunRail: Vote likely dooms project

'I think the forces of evil have won,' Dyer says$200M in insurance proves too big a sticking point

By Dan Tracy

Sentinel Staff Writer

May 1, 2009


The SunRail commuter train derailed on the Senate floor Thursday, likely ending Central Florida's five-year quest for the $1.2 billion project.

Despite lobbying that continued almost unabated throughout the day, an amendment that would have approved a $200 million insurance policy for SunRail was defeated by a 23-17 vote. A second amendment was pulled without a vote.

SunRail proponents could try to bring up the measure again today — the last day of the regular session — but its chances of success are low because it would take 27 votes to do so.

"It'll take some maneuvering to get it done. I think the forces of evil have won," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

He was among the dozens of supporters who tried in vain to corral the 21 votes necessary for SunRail to prevail. But he lost two members of the Central Florida delegation: Sens. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, and Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.

And despite the support of Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and numerous Central Florida business leaders, 15 Republicans voted against the measure.

"We in Central Florida wanted to have a hearing. I believe we're seeing we're not going to get to a vote," said sponsor Sen. Lee Constantine, R- Altamonte Springs, as he withdrew another SunRail amendment and allowed the Senate to adjourn.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who led the charge against the train, said she was "gratified" by the vote, which occurred only after the session was extended by an hour by President Jeff Atwater, R- North Palm Beach.

But Dockery would not declare victory, saying, "We still have one day to go. There's always a few tricks in the book."

SunRail would have linked DeBary in Volusia County with downtown Orlando and Poinciana in Osceola County along a 61.5-mile route with 17 stops.

It was a favored project of former Gov. Jeb Bush, who helped broker the deal in 2004 between the state and CSX, the Jacksonville train company that owns the tracks SunRail would have run on. The only part that called for legislative approval was creation of a $200million insurance policy that would have assigned liability between the commuter train and CSX in the event of an accident.

Dockery and several of her Senate supporters argued that the agreement was deeply flawed and would result in the state unfairly having to cover the vast majority of the costs if there were an accident.

Favors the project, not the deal

She was joined by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who charged that CSX was being paid too much money — more than $600 million — for its tracks and associated improvements to other parts of the system it operates.

"I like the project," Bennett said, "I just don't like the deal."

That position proved persuasive in a legislative session marked by major battles for money, including the highly unusual taking of $100million from a trust fund maintained by the state Department of Transportation for other needs. DOT trust funds had been reserved solely for roads and other transit projects for decades.

The apparent death knell of the train, however, was SunRail's inability to win the support of a group of South Florida Democrats.

Constantine tried to curry their favor by offering them a $2-a-day surcharge on rental cars. The money it would generate, estimated at $50million over an 18-month period, would help offset operating losses of the Tri-Rail commuter train that parallels Interstate 95 in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

The catch was the tax would have to be approved by a supermajority of the affected county commissions, followed by a voter referendum in 2010.

The South Florida delegation — at least, the Democratic members — did not want the referendum, or at the very least, have it delayed to 2014. A late-filed amendment offered that, but it was defeated by the 23-17 count.

At least four South Florida Democrats — Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, Nan Rich of Weston and Frederica Wilson of Miami — voted against the measure.

Gelber, a U.S. Senate candidate, said he wanted to support Tri-Rail but could not because SunRail was too expensive.

"I have a principled position against SunRail," he said.

SunRail's loss hurts Tri-Rail

Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, said he was surprised by the "no" voters — and promised to talk with them about switching their votes.

"I hope it's not over," Ring said. "These are long nights. I'm going to continue tonight to try and convince my South Florida colleagues that we need the dedicated funding source for Tri-Rail."

Without the rental-car surcharge — which would raise an estimated $180 million during the next five years — Tri-Rail could be forced to lay off 150 of its 300-member work force.

The loss could finish off SunRail, which died in the Senate last year without ever reaching the floor for a vote.

The CSX-state contract expires June 30. CSX spokesman Gary Sease would not say what his company intends to do.

"We've got another day. We're just going to have to see what happens," he said.

Also in peril is as much as $307 million in federal funds that had been promised to SunRail by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and John Mica, R- Winter Park. They have said the money likely would go to other communities.

Mica, in fact, has predicted that SunRail's defeat will be held against Florida because nearly $27 million in federal money has been spent buying land for stations and equipment.

"That would be the most phenomenal loss of transportation money," Mica said in a previous interview with the Orlando Sentinel.

Dan Tracy can be reached at or 407-420-5444.


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