Tracks Cleared for SunRail with Special Session Completed
A day after the special session rail package arrived at its destination earlier than expected, it remained unclear how quickly the controversial sale of existing tracks for the proposal Orlando SunRail commuter train would get rolling.
State transportation officials said the legislation had one more stop before it authorized them to buy 61 miles of freight tracks to begin construction of the Deland to Poinciana commuter rail in Orlando.
“We don’t have a hard and fast date,” Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Dick Kane told the News Service of Florida Wednesday. “The bill has to be signed into law first. Then we would look at when we would close. We didn’t have a time frame.”
Gov. Charlie Crist’s office said Wednesday that it had received the rail bill. The governor, a vocal rail supporter, has until Dec. 24 to sign it.
Perhaps to ease the bill’s passage through the gridlocked Senate, backers sought to downplay the aspects of the three-part legislation that allow for the development of SunRail, which became controversial over a two-year fight to pull the train through the chamber. But a key backer of the train said after the final votes that it was the last piece of the SunRail puzzle.
“We had the funding set aside for SunRail some time ago,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer told reporters minutes after the Senate approved what he has long called the city’s top legislative priority. “The last piece to move forward on the acquisition of the right-of-way was to finalize language that established liability in the event of accident somewhere on the line and also delegate authority to the department and eventually a SunRail commission to purchase liability insurance. So that was a big piece.”
Derailed in the Senate in 2008 and again earlier this year, the liability agreement for SunRail that ended up composing a key portion of the special session rail package was 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.
The bill also contains about $15 million for cash-strapped Tri-Rail in central Florida and creates at least two statewide rail panels.
Dyer, who also chairs the Central Florida Rail Commission, said that a decision on applications for stimulus money – which spurred the special session in the first place – would come early next year. Alongside applications for $2.6 billion for the first leg of a long-proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami and $70 million for Atlantic Coast Amtrak service was $432 million for SunRail, which Dyer was crucial.
He also said that purchasing the tracks from CSX was not far down the line for SunRail.
“We anticipate in January or February that the federal government will let us know about the allocation of (Federal Railroad Authority) stimulus funding,” he said. “We’ll know whether we have a piece of that, but (the next step) is to move forward with the right of way acquisition, and when we do that, then we’re able to enter into a full funding agreement with the Federal Transportation Administration and we start work.”
SunRail is projected to be $1.2 billion, with plans calling for $641 million to be paid to CSX for use of the track and an additional $600 million to build stations and purchase equipment. Backers say SunRail will create 13,000 jobs and generate $4.6 billion for the construction sector over 20 years.
Supporters have also said the train would spur 113,000 construction projects within a half-mile range of its 17 stations and remove the number of cars that fill one lane of Interstate 4 during weekday rush hours. Construction plans now call for the trains to begin rolling in 2012 on the first phase of SunRail, 31-miles between DeBary and Sand Lake Road in Orange County.
The remainder of the line would be on line in 2013, supporters have said.
As lawmakers debated the sweeping rail package, much was made about the correlation between the creation of SunRail and the state’s high speed rail plans, especially in the eyes of the federal government. But Senate President Jeff Atwater cautioned after the vote Tuesday that passing the rail did not mean stimulus dollars would automatically roll in.
“The bill wasn’t that we had to have a bullet train when it was over,” Atwater told reporters. “I think we made that clear in the dialogue. This was about can we create a framework where the partnerships (between private companies and government) can develop locally and maybe our federal partners will say it’s time to support Florida and some if its longer term goals.”
Just as quickly though, Atwater said passing the rail bill put the state a lot closer to winning the stimulus money.
“But in Washington they made it very clear…if we ever decide that Florida is right for high speed with this grant, we’re not going to put a bunch of parking garages at every stop,” he said. “You build connectivity.”
And the rail bill’s passage was already reverberating in Washington. Sen. Bill Nelson’s office was touting it as a reason the state was being granted $40 million to “jumpstart a rail system that will serve commuters in Central Florida” by Congressional budget leaders in a broad transportation, housing and military expenditure bill.
“Talk about back-to-back great news for Floridians who are tired of traffic jams - this is it,” Nelson, who had long urged the Legislature to approve rail project, said in a statement. “The miracle of miracles has happened.”
Nelson’s office said the Washington transportation bill also included $4 million for the expansion of Miami’s Metrorail and $1.7 million for a proposed light rail in Tampa.