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House Waiting for Senate to Get On Board SunRail Session

Thus far, most of the Tallahassee talk about a possible December special session to approve the controversial proposed SunRail commuter train in Orlando has come from the upper chamber of the Legislature.

But one of the House sponsors of the bill that would have allowed the train to be built last year told the News Service of Florida that the lower chamber is simply waiting to see if the Senate will get on board with the session and signal it will approve the plan.

“The House has been ready to go for two years on it,” said Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola, who introduced the House companion to the SunRail that bill the Senate voted down last year. “We’re just waiting to see what the Senate wants to do. The House has moved in the past in that direction to support it and I think they would be predisposed to support it (again in a special session).”

In 2008, the House approved the language of a liability agreement with CSX Corp., which the freight rail company had tied to the sale of the 61 miles of track that would be used to run SunRail trains. The bill also cleared its only House committee in 2009, but the plan reached the end of the line in the Senate when staunch opposition led by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, brought it down on the floor of the Senate.

Murzin, who chairs the House Economic Development & Community Affairs Policy Council, said the House was waiting to see if the Senate math would add up differently before jumping on board with the special session talk.

“Let’s see if it was put up on the board, would they have the votes,” Murzin said. “Then we’ll move forward. If they don’t have the votes, why waste the time, effort, and money of going up to Tallahassee?”

The wheels on the special session talk began moving quickly last week when Senate President Jeff Atwater said the federal government was looking for action on other rail projects in Florida before it considers approving the state's $2.5 billion application for the first leg of the long proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train. In total, the state submitted three applications for some of the $8 billion that is available in the federal economic stimulus package for high speed rail, also asking for $432 for SunRail and $70 million for Atlantic Coast Amtrak service.

Decisions on the applications are 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.

However, after Atwater raised the specter of a rail special session during his trip to meet with federal transportation officials and the Florida U.S. delegation in Washington, D.C., House Speaker Larry Cretul’s office said only that the speaker would discuss the possibility with Atwater when he returned. But Murzin said the House was aware of the importance of acting on SunRail, even if it was leery of getting too far ahead of the Senate.

“Whenever the feds say there’s an opportunity to draw down more money, Florida needs to be first in line,” he said. “That adds to the sense of urgency.”

Murzin added that there could be advantages to dealing with SunRail in a limited special session instead of a wide-open regular session, when it could be linked with other issues. Last year, backers linked funding for Tri-Rail to the plan in an unsuccessful effort to win support from the South Florida delegation.

“There’s lots of dynamics in there,” Murzin said. “There’s statewide concern about expenditures of money, and it got caught up in the trial lawyer fight. Unfortunately, a lot of times it revolves around who you can sue. Tri-Rail was mixed in there too, and kind of muddied the water up. Going into a special session, you’re going in with one issue.”

The 2008 Senate SunRail sponsor, Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, told the News Service that he could not predict whether the House would ultimately get on the special session train, but he was confident that the plan had support in the chamber.

“I’ve not heard anything from (the House) that they would be interested (in a special session), but I would hope they would be receptive, being that one of the sponsors over there will be the next Speaker of the House,” Constantine said, referring to key SunRail backer Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. “The (House) leadership felt comfortable they would be able to pass the bill in whatever form it passed in the Senate.”

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