Crist Hopes Rail Session Will Be Set by Thanksgiving
Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday that he is “hopefully optimistic” that there will be a special session for rail issues this year and that a date could be set for the gathering by the end of the month.
Speaking with reporters before a Cabinet meeting during which Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos gave an outline of where the state is in working out liability issues related to Orlando area commuter rail, Crist said he was encouraged by the conversations he has had about the special session with Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul.
“Solid is in the eye of the beholder I suppose,” he said when asked if he had any solid information that caused his optimism. “I think I would characterize it as hopefully optimistic that we could have a special. I’ll be talking with the Speaker and Senate President again and hopefully we can get a date set before the Thanksgiving break.”
Crist also indicated that Tri-Rail, which is not a part of the state’s application for $8 billion in federal stimulus money that has touched off the special session talk, could be included in the special session. Previously the governor had said he wasn’t sure if the Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach county commuter train system would make it onto the agenda, but Crist said Tuesday that Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, is pushing for a rental car surcharge that Tri-Rail supporters have said would generate $180 million for the system.
Most observers say Tri-Rail needs a dedicated revenue source to survive, and Crist said Tuesday that was what was on the table for the special session.
“What’s being discussed in my conversations with the Senate president involves rental cars,” Crist said. “One of issues that we’re dealing with is, if there’s a $2 fee on rental cars, how that would be…allowed, whether by a referendum, a vote of the county commissions for those counties involved or a super majority of those county commissions. That’s part of the discussion we’re trying to work through before we call a special.”
Crist said the special session would not roll until both chambers were fully on board with the proposals.
“One of the oldest rules regarding a special session is you shouldn’t call one unless you believe you have the votes to get the mission accomplished,” the governor said. “We’re trying to determine that before we would utilize taxpayers’ dollars…I think that’s really sort of where it is. We need 21 votes in the Senate to make that happen, obviously.”
Crist added that a delay in working out the details of the special session – and counting the votes - did not necessarily mean that it would not happen in December, as Atwater called for after he met last month with federal transportation officials.
“It could be either (December of January),” Crist said. “Once you get a consensus as to having the necessary vote…you could call a special fairly quickly.”
After Crist’s pre-Cabinet media availability, Transportation Secretary Kopelousos updated the governor and the Cabinet on the issue that has stopped SunRail in its tracks for two years: a liability agreement with CSX Corp. that the freight rail company had tied to the sale of the 61 miles of track that would be used to run the commuter trains.
Appearing at the behest of Attorney General Bill McCollum, who also supports the SunRail project, Kopelousos compared the current deal - 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 – to existing language used for Tri-Rail and “consistent with national standards.”
“FDOT and CSX currently maintain a no-fault liability contract in South Florida for Tri-Rail and that’s been in existence since 1988,” she said. “We currently are refining the terms of the liability language, but it will still maintain, fundamentally, a no-fault system.”
The SunRail plan was voted down by the Senate this spring despite being changed from a broader immunity plan the chamber balked at in 2008, but Kopelousos said the transportation department was now seeking to base its plan on a similar agreement in Massachusetts that requires CSX to pay a portion of the liability cost picked up by the state.
Kopelousos said the plan wouldn’t be identical to the Massachusetts deal, which requires CSX to pay a $7.5 million insurance deductible in the case of any accident the company was found at fault for, but she said Florida was looking at similar protections.
“It’s very difficult to compare apples to apples, because in Massachusetts they have a $75 million cap on liability,” she said. “What we’re working on with CSX right now is that they would pay our deductible – our retention fund that we have, which would be anywhere from $5 to $10 million.”
Though the Cabinet has no role in approving the SunRail proposal, McCollum expressed optimism that the tweaked language would be enough of a change to sway reluctant senators, who voted the plan down 17-23 last year.
“That’s a very important change…from where we were year ago with the legislation that last visited this,” McCollum said after Kopelousos’ update. “I certainly hope that this is going to be successful. We need commuter rail; every one of us up here on this Cabinet understands that. It looks to me like we’re making a lot of progress.”
At least one opponent of previous versions of the liability agreement, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, seemed assuaged by Kopelousos’ update. Sink, who called her self a “strong supporter of the SunRail project,” said the liability agreement has become a more fair deal for the state.
“Two years ago, I raised some concerns about the liability issue because the place we started out was that CSX would in fact bear no responsibility and Florida would have to bear all the responsibility,” she said. “Fortunately they’ve backed off of that.”
But citing the changes CSX has made to the agreements in Florida and Massachusetts, Sink encouraged Kopelousos to continue pushing the company for favorable terms.
“They’ve clearly been prepared to negotiate a better structure or a better deal than was originally contemplated even from last year’s Legislature,” she said. “I know that they want to have something that’s more consistent with what they do in Maryland and Massachusetts and the other states – that’s understandable – but I just want to encourage you to be a tough negotiator and think about these liability issues from the taxpayer’s perspective and bring this deal in for a landing because it really is so important.”