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Crist Signs Rail Bill, No Pancakes for Kopelousos

Gov. Charlie Crist kicked off a tour of areas likely to celebrate his signing of passenger rail legislation meant to spur train travel in the state by signing the measure Wednesday morning in Tallahassee.

But noticeably absent from the ceremony was Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos, a staple at previous rail events. Kopelousos has come under fire recently for rail-related E-mails that critics allege were coded to avoid public records requests.

Signing the bill (HB 1B) a day after asking his inspector general to look into the E-mails, which critics have dubbed “WaffleGate” due to the use of breakfast-themed subjects like “pancakes” and “French toast” on messages about the rail proposal, Crist brushed off questions from reporters about Kopelousos’ absence and said the IG investigation was not large enough to derail his planned tour.

“I don’t think they affect the legislation at all,” he said after highlighting at length what he says will be a positive economic impact from the rail bill and the possibility of drawing down federal money for high speed rail as a result of signing it.

The legislation passed last week will allow the creation of the commuter rail line SunRail in the Orlando area, provide about $15 million for South Florida’s Tri-Rail and backers say it will lay the foundation for a future statewide passenger rail network.

In a nod to federal transportation officials, who signaled they would not approve the state’s $2.6 billion federal stimulus application for the first leg of a proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train unless the state took care of the trains it already had or was planning, Crist said his signing of the rail bill “solidifies our state’s commitment to expanding passenger rail transportation.”

“Today we celebrate because Florida’s transportation future moves into the 21st century,” he said. “The bill we sign today shows Florida’s true commitment to strengthening our portfolio of alternative transportation.”

“We are now one step closer to linking rail with our roads, airports and our seaports,” he continued. “SunRail, Tri-Rail and high speed rail will move the Sunshine State into a new era of collaboration and innovation. These passenger rail projects are the building blocks of a better transportation network.”

Crist added that he had been in touch with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the Florida Congressional Delegation about the stimulus application. He thanked House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater for shepherding the bill through the Legislature after two previous failed attempts.

“I’m grateful to every senator and representative for understanding the job creation and economic development power of rail,” Crist said.

Once regarded as one of the nation’s most environmentally-friendly Republicans, Crist also touched on the green effects of the rail bill, an agenda he has not pushed much since decided to run for the U.S. Senate in a closed Republican primary.

“They will yield benefits far beyond the rail lines themselves,” he said. “They will make the daily commute clean, and more efficient, with fewer cars on the road and therefore less pollution.”

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a supporter of the rail bill, and a Democratic candidate to replace the governor, hailed Crist for signing the bill into law.

“Our state has shown our commitment to high speed and commuter rail, which is important for Florida’s jobs, infrastructure, and long-term economic growth,” Sink said in a statement. “I am pleased that we have achieved a comprehensive vision for rail in our state as well as commuter rail for Central Florida. Now our attention turns to Washington, as we work to ensure that Florida’s applications for federal taxpayer dollars set aside for rail projects are funded.”

But Sink, who suggested that Crist launch the “WaffleGate” investigation, did not appear as willing as the governor to move on from the breakfast E-mails.

“Apparently, these government officials, your government officials, may have decided "pancakes" aren't just for breakfast anymore -- but, instead, are a way to duck transparency and cover their actions,” her campaign wrote in an E-mail to supporters. “It's not cute, nor clever. It is outrageous. We have to change the way that the people's business is done in Tallahassee. That means holding our state government accountable and ensuring that Florida officials are living up to our state’s name -- and reputation -- as the Sunshine State.”

Meanwhile, state Democrats sought to scramble Crist’s rail road show by putting him on the hot seat for “WaffleGate” and highlighting Sink’s role in bringing about the investigation.

"This is Charlie Crist's opportunity to explain his politics-as-usual approach to ethical scandals at the highest level of his administration to the people of Florida,” Florida Democratic Party Spokesman Eric Jotkoff said in a statement.

Crist followed the bill signing by heading to Tampa to re-enact it at a lot for a future station for the envisioned bullet train from Tampa to Orlando. Crist will then join one of the legislation's major cheerleaders, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, at a bill signing ceremony in Orlando Wednesday afternoon.

In Orlando, Crist will sign the legislation at the Church Street Station. Crist then heads to Fort Lauderdale to tout the proposal's financial backing for TriRail, the South Florida commuter rail network. He'll do a bill signing ceremony at the Fort Lauderdale Airport/ Dania Beach Tri-Rail Station.

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