Against All Odds, Florida Rail Authority Rolls On
The Florida High Speed Rail Authority last month had one of its most high profile members resign and the rest of its members terms have actually expired. But the authority has kept the wheels on its plan to apply for federal money that can be used to build a proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train.
FHSRA chairman Lee Chira told the News Service Monday that the absence of Lakeland businessman C.C. Dockery -- considered by many in the rail community to be the father of the train push in Florida -- has not hindered the panel as its prepares to apply for $8 billion in federal stimulus money for high speed rail.
Dockery, who pushed for the bullet train in the late 1990s and early 2000s, resigned from the authority in April because of unhappiness with state support for the panel. He was also staunchly opposed to the panel's decision to show solidarity on rail development in Florida by adopting a resolution in favor of the proposed SunRail Orlando commuter rail that was eventually derailed in the Legislature by his wife Sen. Paula Dockery.
"We have enough members," Chira said Monday. "We only need five (to have a quorum), and there's eight of us left. That's sufficient to conduct business until a replacement is named."
As the panel as the panel debated the SunRail resolution at its April meeting Dockery argued unsuccessfully that local commuter rail was beyond the purview of the High Speed Rail Authority. Once the commission took it up anyway, he echoed concerns about the plan often raised by his wife, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and when it was approved with only his dissent, he resigned from the panel.
Dockery did not mention SunRail specifically in announcing his resignation, and attributed his decision mostly to insufficient support from Gov. Charlie Crist in the FHSRA effort to win stimulus money for high-speed rail.
The panel was created in 2001 after voters approved a constitutional amendment for high speed inter-city trains in a campaign Dockery largely funded out of his own pocket. But it had been dormant since 2005, after voters put the brakes on the plans for the bullet train after a push by former Gov. Jeb Bush, who said the state could not afford it.
However, buoyed again this year by the possibility of receiving the stimulus money – without a requirement for matching funds from the state - the panel started meeting again and has met three times. It plans to continue doing so at least through September to complete an application for the money.
But Chira said the authority may continue to have an empty chair when they get together. Dockery, who was appointed to a second-term on the FHSRA by then-Senate President Jim King in 2004, was serving beyond his four-year term, as are the remainder of the high speed rail authority.
With stimulus applications due in September, the members decided to continue working, as state law allows them to unless they are replaced. The Department of Transportation has supported the panel’s work on applying for the federal stimulus money.
"We may have a different board (when the stimulus money arrives),...but I think they're pretty happy with what we have," Chira said of the likelihood of being replaced by Crist, House Speaker Larry Cretul or Senate President Jeff Atwater.
The 2005 legislation that created the High Speed Rail Authority allows the governor, speaker of the House and Senate president to appoint three members each. Having been appointed by a Senate president, Dockery's replacement would be up to Atwater, R-North Palm Beach. An Atwater spokesperson said Tuesday that his office was not currently considering new FHSRA appointments.
Similarly, a spokesman for Crist said the governor would not immediately re-appoint the chief executive's three appointees. Current members Leila Nodarse and Fred Dudley were appointed to the panel in 2004 by former Gov. Jeb Bush and the governor's choice for Transportation Secretary is an ex-officio member.
"Appointments are a large part of the governor's job," Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey told the News Service. "He makes appointments to a number of boards and commissions and it takes time to put them in place."
Ivey said the governor was reviewing the seats that could be vacant on the High Speed Rail Authority, along with other vacancies on state boards and panels.
Cretul spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin said the speaker's office had similarly not made a decision about its FHSRA appointments.
"They've been inactive and unfunded for a couple years at least," she said Monday afternoon. "We were not aware that they were meeting, so the answer is we don't know yet. The staff in the House will look into this and make recommendations, but theoretically they can serve until they are replaced."
Any new appointments to the High Speed Rail Authority - or the lack thereof - would come at a crucial crossing for rail in Florida, with the SunRail defeat and the funding woes for Tri-Rail in South Florida clouding the future of rail in the Sunshine State, despite the eagerness to see it here in Washington, D.C. But Chira said he was confident the stimulus application would be submitted and said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has said publicly that Florida and California have an inside track on the federal dollars.