Leaders: Special Session a Possibility for Next Week
House and Senate leaders told members Wednesday that they're moving closer to an agreement on passenger rail legislation - “very close” in the words of Senate President Jeff Atwater – that would allow for a special session, and suggested it could come as early as next week.
In separate messages to members, both Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, and House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, said they anticipated that a session could soon be called.
“I am optimistic that we are very close to having legislation ... while addressing the concerns raised by senators regarding liability for freight and passenger rail and a dedicated, sustainable funding source for commuter rail,” Atwater said in a short letter to the Senate sent late Wednesday.
“I am in ongoing conversations with Speaker Cretul and fully anticipate that we will be announcing a Special Session in the next few days,” Atwater continued. “In which case, I expect we would convene on Thursday, December 3, 2009......Our goal is to complete our work prior to Hanukkah, which begins on December 11.”
Atwater said he'd update members on Monday.
Cretul sent a similar message to House members.
Lawmakers are contemplating the session to pass legislation that would allow Orlando to move forward on a local commuter rail plan and could provide some state money for the TriRail commuter train in South Florida. The proposals are, in addition to increasing the state's transportaiton options, meant mainly to send Washington a signal that Florida is serious about making passenger rail a part of its transportaiton future.
That's important, backers say, because Washington is waiting on that signal before deciding on where to allocate stimulus money for intra-city high speed rail – including a Florida project that's been considered for years, a train that would eventually connect Tampa, Orlando and Miami.
That idea – an intracity bullet train – gained some traction about a decade ago, with voters even putting the train in the state constitution. But then-Gov. Jeb Bush got voters to undo it, saying the state couldn't afford such a train without a lot more riders than were guaranteed at the time.
Federal officials told Atwater and other senators recently that if Florida is to be considered for rail stimulus money it must show some support for long-term development of passenger rail. The Orlando project has been rejected by state lawmakers the last couple of years.
Lawmakers need to approve a deal to have the proposed SunRail commuter rail use some tracks currently owned by CSX and used for freight trains. The legislation would have to spell out some liability issues involving who is on the hook in the event of an accident.
Gov. Charlie Crist has said for a couple weeks that he wants lawmakers to return to Tallahassee to pass the rail legislation and had expressed the hope recently that they would work out the framework of a proposal by Thanksgiving with the hope of passing legislation in December. Department of Transportaiton officils say a decision is expected on the stimulus money sometime in January.