Rail Bill Wins Senate Approval, Heads to Crist
After twice defeating legislation that would allow for commuter rail in central Florida in previous sessions, the Florida Senate on Tuesday approved a broader three-part rail package on a wider-than-expected margin.
The backing of most of the 14-member Democratic caucus, whose objection to the special session rail package was mollified by a late deal with union leaders, allowed the Senate to approve the measure on a 27-10 vote. It will allow for the development of the Deland to Poinciana commuter rail in Orlando, provide about $15 million to cash-strapped Tri-Rail in central Florida and create at least two statewide rail panels.
After the Senate’s approval of the earlier passed House bill with no amendments, the measure now goes to the desk of Gov. Charlie Crist. But the victory for rail supporters came over staunch objections from a small bipartisan group led again by Sen. Paula Dockery, who argued the bill was a bad deal for the state’s taxpayers that didn’t do enough to help Tri-Rail anyway.
The vote was a swift turnaround from the early hours Tuesday, when the track for the plan through the historically hostile chamber looked uncertain.
However, a compromise between the Florida AFL-CIO and the Florida Department of Transportation and the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority that removed the union’s concerns about workers on the existing SunRail tracks and Tri-Rail sped the plan up and appeared to clear the way for the Senate vote.
Supporters hailed the vote as historic. One long-time backer, Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, called upon the chamber to “do something great for Florida” and approve the measure, naming a host of cities throughout that nation that had rail systems.
“It’s time we come of age,” Altman said as senators prepared to cast the decisive votes.
Uncertain of their ability to pass the legislation as recently as Monday afternoon, Senate President Jeff Atwater and Gov. Charlie Crist leaned on wavering lawmakers. One previous opponent who switched tracks to support the rail bill, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said that her stance on the measure changed because backers had widened its parameters beyond central Florida.
“I thought it was a truly bad bill and it was obscure last year,” she said on the floor. “Nobody in my district knew anything about it. This year…I know it’s not a perfect bill and I know you don’t love it. This year it’s different to me because it’s not just about the CSX railway, it’s about a vision.”
Detert credited Sen. Dockery with “nitpicking the deal” to its improvements, though Dockery did not seem to see it as being much better than the measure she is widely credited with twice derailing.
“I’m happy for you to have a commuter rail,” Dockery said of Orlando. “I just think the terms of the deal were bad.”
Dockery was joined in voting no on the plan by six Republicans – Sens. Carey Baker, Charlie Dean, Steve Oelrich, Durrell Peaden, Alex Villalobos and Ronda Storms – and three Democrats – Sens. Gary Siplin, Arthenia Joyner and Nan Rich. The group cited a cadre of reasons for opposing the deal, ranging from the liability provisions for the purchase of existing freight rail tracks from CSX Corp. for SunRail to the proposed route of the train.
The most common complaint, however, remained the cost of the plan, which opponents said would ultimately reach $1.2 billion.
“The only rail system in America that is successful and pays for itself – Mickey Mouse owns it,” said Dean, R-Inverness. “Everything else is subsidized.”
Baker, R-Eustis, another of the 10 votes against the rail plan, said he could not embrace the package after it had swelled to include a high-speed rail provision. His numbers put the cost higher.
"Say what you will, but $2.6 billion is an awful lot of money in this economy," Baker said.
Senate supporters went to great lengths through the special session and during debate Tuesday to downplay the SunRail provisions of the rail package, which had long been the most controversial portions of the deal. Even after the vote, Senate President Atwater only said that the bill “might well allow an existing transaction to close,” focusing instead on the statewide aspects of the legislation.
Orlando Mayor and Central Florida Rail Commission Chairman Buddy Dyer, a longtime SunRail backer, was less shy about hailing the bill clearing the way for the proposed system.
“It is going to mean a different type of growth in Orlando,” Buddy Dyer said. “We’re going to move to transit-oriented development instead of sprawl. I like to think about going to New York and getting on a subway and going to Yankee Stadium. Now I like to think about somebody in Sanford being able to get on SunRail and come to downtown Orlando, maybe go to a Magic game or go to the Performing Arts Center or enjoy dinner and then take the train back home. It’s going to change the way we live in central Florida.”
After the vote, Dockery said she had the votes to defeat the legislation until the union dropped its opposition Tuesday afternoon.
"I hope they got whatever they did in writing," Dockery said. "But I knew it was going to be tough to stop this in a special session. Things move fast."
But Dockery, a gubernatorial candidate, said her opposition to the rail plan will resonate with Republican voters in next year's primary.
"I think this shows that as a senator you can only do so much as one of 40 in standing up to special interests," she said. "But as governor, you hold the veto pen."
The current holder of that veto pen, however, has been a vocal supporter of the rail package through the special session and for much of the last legislation and praised its passage.