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Backers Hope SunRail Gets Back on Track in Special Session

With a special session to ratify a recent Seminole gaming agreement likely this fall, supporters of the controversial proposed SunRail commuter train in Orlando are hoping to get the wheels of the plan moving again when lawmakers are back in Tallahassee.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who sponsored the unsuccessful legislation last session that would have allowed the Department of Transportation to purchase 61 miles of existing freight rail tracks from CSX Corp., told the News Service of Florida Thursday that he would like to see SunRail on the agenda of a Seminole special session.

“Hope springs eternal,” he said. “We don’t know if it’s going to be October or November, but I think this is the best way to really debate this issue.”

After Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida signed a gambling agreement early this week that will have to be ratified by lawmakers, a number of interest groups have raised the prospect of their issues also being included on the agenda, which will be set in advance by the governor – though legislative leaders can add items too.

Constantine said SunRail should be among the agenda items in the speculated special session because so much has changed about the issue since lawmakers defeated. The proposal failed in this year’s session despite an effort to draw support from the South Florida delegation by tying it to funding for that region’s existing Tri-Rail commuter train.

“A number of things have changed since the end of session,” Constantine said. “SunRail got mixed in with a number of other issues, so people were voting for or against it for a number of reasons.”

Among the differences Constantine cited are the possibility of using federal economic stimulus money for the track purchase instead of state dollars and the funding woes of Tri-Rail, which nearly caused the system to cut service this summer. The Department of Transportation submitted an application for the SunRail deal alongside an application for construction of the first leg of a proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train and a request for $70 million for Amtrak passenger service between Jacksonville and Miami.

The renewed SunRail push was made possible when CSX extended the period to negotiate the plan's liability agreement, which the freight rail company has tied to the sale of the track, in June. The current 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 voted down by the Senate this spring despite being changed from a broader immunity plan the chamber balked at in 2008.

Constantine said he hoped a special session would allow some of the no votes from the 2009 regular session to reconsider.

“The obligations (to vote no on the legislation) have been met, so I hope they can be convinced that this is a new day and a new time,” he said.

But he also acknowledged that like other advocates eyeing special session for a do-over, he has no idea whether SunRail will see the light of day in the likely special session.

“It’s all speculation at this time,” he said.

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