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SunRail Sputters On

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said Monday that there’s new hope for commuter rail in central Florida with the extension of negotiations on a proposed purchase that had been set to expire Tuesday.

The deal that would allow the Department of Transportation to purchase 61 miles of existing railroad tracks from CSX Corp. to build the controversial proposed SunRail commuter train in Orlando was set to expire Tuesday.

But the chairman of the panel that would oversee the train - should it ever win approval from the Legislature - said the freight company decided Monday not to hit the brakes on the proposal just now.

Dyer, who in addition to serving as Orlando mayor is also chairman of the Central Florida Rail Commission, said CSX has agreed to extend the proposal to purchase the rail line and negotiate new terms of liability, which had been a source of contention in the state Senate.

Dyer said that while the plan that would have created SunRail this year was voted down when backers amended it onto an omnibus transportation bill (HB 1021) after unsuccessfully trying to bring stand-alone legislation (SB 1212) to the floor, opposition to measure was not based on the concept itself, but in details. Dyer said the extension will allow supporters to continue addressing concerns that were raised in the lengthy Senate debate.

“Our state senators made it clear they supported the creation of SunRail,” Dyer said in a statement. “Their concerns centered on the amount of state funds designated for the project during tough financial times and on the creation of a statewide liability provision. We have gone back to the drawing board to resolve these concerns and we have come up with an amended plan to reflect the wishes of the Florida Legislature while maintaining our local financial contributions. Our new plan is a win for all of Florida.”

Officials from CSX couldn’t be reached for comment late Monday.

Under the new plan touted by SunRail backers Monday evening, $432 million of federal stimulus money would be used to buy the tracks from CSX – previously the purchase was in the Department of Transportation’s five-year spending plan – and the remainder would come from a loan from the Federal Rail Administration.

But whether the funding for the purchase comes from the DOT 2008-2013 spending plan or the federal stimulus, the train has hinged on legislative approval of the plan's liability agreement because the freight rail company has tied it to the sale of the track. The agreement - a "no fault" indemnification agreement that would have the state and CSX each responsible for its own equipment, workers and passengers no matter who causes an accident and third party damage being split - was changed after the Senate balked at a broader immunity plan in 2008.

However, the revised liability agreement was not enough to get the Senate on board with the proposed Orlando train this year either, though Dyer touted the CSX extension as an example that the plan is regaining momentum. Dyer also pointed to an announcement last week from two ardent SunRail supporters, U.S Reps. John Mica and Corrine Brown, that the Federal Transportation Administration planned to keep the project in the “final design” stage despite the legislative set-back this year.

It’s the latest sign that Washington, D.C. is very interested in developing rail in Florida, Dyer added, mentioning the possibility of the state receiving $8 billion in stimulus money for a separate proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train.

Dyer quickly added that the two trains could end up running the same track to fruition.

“What the feds are telling us is that if you support high speed rail then you have to support SunRail,” Dyer said.

Mica agreed that SunRail and high speed rail are coupled like the train cars that backers hope to soon see rolling.

“The federal government is an even bigger partner now and what happens in central Florida will be key to all other future rail projects in the state,” Mica said in a statement.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, a commuter rail supporter who had expressed concern after the vote last month that CSX would be unwilling to continue waiting for the state to approve the track sale, also hailed the extension Monday evening.

“I was concerned that CSX would walk away from the whole deal,” Constantine told the News Service Monday. “They’ve been villianized through this whole thing, but they are willing to negotiate the indemnity.”

Constantine said backers were hoping the extension and changes to the deal would forestall another protracted battle with opponents like Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who has led opposition to the plan the past two years, despite saying she was in favor of building some kind of commuter rail in Orlando.

“We haven’t given up,” Constantine said. “We think it’s that important. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re off the respirator.”

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