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Atwater: Lawmakers May Need Special Session for Rail

Senate President Jeff Atwater is concerned that federal support for passenger rail in Florida may be derailed if the state doesn't move quickly to show interest in moving forward, a spokeswoman said Monday.

In a meeting Monday in Washington with federal officials, Atwater heard that if the state is going to get some of the grant money being made available this winter to states for rail projects, it needs to show that it is serious about an inter-connected passenger rail system. A commuter rail plan in the Orlando area has failed two years in a row in the Legislature.

With federal grant money being made available over the winter, waiting until the normal spring meeting of the Legislature might not send that signal strongly enough, Atwater spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said the president believes.

“He would like to give the feds an answer,” Emhof said.

Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, was in Washington Monday with Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales and Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, and following talks with federal transportation officials, met with Florida's two U.S. Senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican George LeMieux.

Florida is seeking $2.5 billion of $8 billion being made available to states for a high speed intra-city train, but needs to show a commitment to connect that rail system to local commuter rail projects.

Nelson and LeMieux reinforced the message.

The federal officials “sent them a pretty strong message that, 'Hey, we need to see a commitment from you guys,'” said Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for Nelson. He said the federal officials were looking at the state's commitment not just to the TriRail commuter system in South Florida, the proposed, and twice-defeated SunRail project in Central Florida and a long-proposed high speed bullet train project from Tampa to Orlando to Miami, but also a commitment to connect various projects.

“The message was delivered and the legislators heard it loud and clear,” Gulley said.

Emhof said that while Atwater believes the Legislature should move forward before the end of the year, there's been no commitment so far from House Speaker Larry Cretul or the governor's office.

Gov. Charlie Crist, though, reacted positively to word that Atwater would like a special session this year.

“I think it's the right thing for Florida," the governor told reporters following an afternoon political event for his Senate campaign.

Crist noted that new transportation projects could also create jobs and help put a dent in the state's 11 percent unemployment.

Soon after Atwater spoke with federal officials and then reporters in Washington raising the possibility of moving forward on rail this year, he phoned House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala.

“They agreed to talk further when he gets back to Florida,” said Cretul's spokeswoman, Jill Chamberlin.

Crist might seek, however, to get some of his own ideas in front of the Legislature, including the Seminole gaming compact. Crist has been lobbying for legislative approval of a compact he signed with the Seminole Tribe on sharing of gambling revenues. The Legislature authorized him to negotiate a compact with the tribe this summer, but the terms of the compact were not the ones that lawmakers approved in legislation they passed during the spring.

Lawmakers are still examining the deal Crist inked with the tribe and would have to approve it for it to go into effect.

"I think having those additional monies for education for our children is awfully important," Crist said. "That's why I've supported it. So I hope that could be part of the equation too."

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