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Special Session Begins Thursday, More Details Emerge

Senate President Jeff Atwater advised lawmakers Monday to plan be in Tallahassee on Thursday for a special session to deal with rail issues and revealed the specifics of the legislation they will be voting on.

Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said the special session, which is expected to continue into next week when lawmakers had scheduled a week of committee meetings in advance of the regular session next spring, would be “the conversation I believe Florida should have regarding the role of rail as a part of a forward-looking transportation system.”

The Senate leader also revealed differences between unsuccessful legislation last year that would have allowed the proposed Orlando commuter train – known as SunRail - to be built and provided funding to the existing South Florida Tri-Rail train and the bill shaping up to be presented to lawmakers this time around.

Chief among those differences, Atwater said, is funding Tri-Rail with surplus state gas tax dollars instead of a rental car surcharge in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Another difference: holding CSX responsible for culpability of its employees and equipment in accidents that occur on the tracks SunRail would share with CSX freight trains.

“This is not simply a rewrite of last year’s legislation,” Atwater wrote to the Senate, in which he acknowledged that the liability issue was one of last year’s sticking points. “I listened to the legitimate concerns that were raised during last year’s session. I am pleased to report that over the last several weeks FDOT has been negotiating an improved liability contract.”

The federal government’s queasiness about funding Tri-Rail through hiking rental cars fees in the Tri-Rail counties was due the fact that those surcharges might be rejected by voters or county commissions.

Atwater said the new plan would be to use the transportation trust fund money.

“We are able to do this without affecting road construction projects within the current FDOT work program,” he wrote.

Atwater added that the rail bill will also include the creation of a Florida Rail Enterprise modeled after the Florida Turnpike Enterprise and a Passenger Rail Commission, part of a new “comprehensive rail transit policy” for the state.

Another provision not included in the SunRail bill last year will be an item to allow the use of document stamp tax dollars for future rail projects, which Atwater said is vital to Florida’s future.

“Creating opportunities to bring employers and employees closer, to move goods and services more efficiently, and to capitalize upon existing transit corridors, is a fundamental component of a robust state economy,” he wrote. “The time has come to recognize that we must complement our existing road systems with rail alternatives, as we seek to renew our urban industrial centers and build a stronger future for Florida.”

In a separate message to members of the House, who previously approved legislation allowing for SunRail but are generally more suspicious of taxes like the Tri-Rail rental car surcharge, House Speaker Larry Cretul praised the compromise bill as “a win for Florida commuters who will now have more access to cleaner and more efficient mass transit” and a victory “for Florida taxpayers who understand best that now is not the time to raise taxes.”

“The agreement relating to SunRail and Tri-Rail represents a compromise between prior House and Senate positions,” Cretul wrote. “The result is a bill that is significantly better than similar legislation we have supported in the past two sessions.”

Cretul and Atwater both said they expected a formal call for the special session to be issued late Monday and Cretul said the House would convene Thursday at 10:30, an hour and a half later than Atwater scheduled the begin of the Senate’s session. Cretul told House members that the bill would be considered Thursday by the Economic Development & Community Affairs Policy Council and that a floor vote could come as early as Dec. 7.

However, he said he did not expect the Senate to vote on the measure until Dec. 9.

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