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Crist Unsure Tri-Rail Would Roll in Special Session

Backers of the existing South Florida commuter train Tri-Rail may be hoping a proposed special session to deal with rail issues will give them an opportunity to get financial assistance from the state for the beleaguered system, but Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday that he wasn’t sure the train would be included on such an agenda.

Tri-Rail supporters tried last year to amend legislation that would have allowed the Orlando SunRail commuter trail by tacking on a $2 rental car surcharge in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties that would have gone to Tri-Rail. But as talk of a special session to once again try to approve SunRail intensifies, Crist said Tuesday that Tri-Rail may remain parked.

“That remains to be seen,” Crist said when asked whether the surcharge would be included in the possible special session. “We certainly want to look at all the possibilities.”

The special session talk this week centers on the state’s three applications for some of the $8 billion that is available in the federal economic stimulus package for high speed rail. Senate President Jeff Atwater said this week that the feds are looking for action on other rail projects in Florida before they consider approving the state’s $2.5 billion application for the first leg of the long proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train.

The state also has stimulus applications in for $70 million for Atlantic Coast Amtrak passenger service between Jacksonville and Miami and $432 million for buying tracks for SunRail from CSX Corp. However, the SunRail deal may not go through without the Legislature’s approval of the plan's liability agreement, which the freight rail company has tied to the sale of the tracks. The plan has been stymied in the Senate for two years.

A decision on the applications is expected by the end of the year, forcing lawmakers to consider reconvening early if they want to show the federal government the state is serious about rail.

But Tri-Rail was left out of the stimulus mix – and so far has been left out of the special session talk. Tri-Rail supporters have long argued that the only way for the system to become financially solvent is for it to have a recurring revenue source such as the rental car surcharge, which was projected to generate $180 million for the train.

The rental surcharge went down to defeat alongside SunRail during the 2009 session, so Tri-Rail is using funds normally reserved for building and maintaining tracks and stations for operations this year to keep its trains running at full capacity. The system had considered eliminating half its current 60 trains per day and cutting weekend or holiday service altogether, but threw the brakes on the plan because it would have caused the system to default on a $256 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration that was used for a double tracking project completed in 2006.

Bonnie Arnold, a spokeswoman for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees Tri-Rail, told the News Service that the panel was watching the special session talk “very carefully,” but she did not predict whether or not the system would be an agenda item if a session is called.

“Our position right now is we're in a holding pattern,” Arnold said. “We're waiting for the call to be issued and we're waiting to see what's in it.”

However, the Senate sponsor of the rental car surcharge last year, Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, told the News Service of Florida Tuesday that he was confident Tri-Rail would be included in any special session to discuss rail, even if SunRail dominates the headlines.

“President Atwater clearly indicated that we would be looking at rail as a whole,” Ring said. “I know it’s been branded as SunRail, but it’s really rail initiatives for the whole state. The federal government has really put a stake in the ground and said that if the state wants high speed rail, it has to support commuter rail.”

Ring, who has said previously that he planned to introduce the rental surcharge as a standalone bill next year, predicted the proposal would fare better than it did last year when it was attached to the SunRail plan if lawmakers come back to Tallahassee early.

“If the state doesn’t support commuter rail, you won’t see any high speed rail money,” he said.

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