Make us your home page

If Amtrak crashes, Florida taxpayers might be forced to pay


A 2008 train crash in the San Fernando valley drew national headlines for its grim toll: 25 killed, nearly 100 injured. It gained notoriety later when a federal investigation found that the train engineer had run a red light after texting. Operators of the train paid $200 million to compensate the victims — the maximum under federal law but only half the total claims. Under a bill advancing through the Legislature, Florida taxpayers could be asked to pick up the tab for damages caused by Amtrak, even if the operator error was as egregious as the 2008 crash. "It's a horrible public policy," said Jamie Holland, a Jacksonville lawyer who specializes in rail. "It puts the Florida taxpayer on the hook."

Similar protections were awarded to CSX, the freight railroad operator, in 2009. Lawmakers made taxpayers liable for potential accidents caused by CSX on the 61-mile SunRail commuter line in Orlando.

An Amtrak attorney, Carol Licko, said the bill merely gives Amtrak the same liability protection along the SunRail corridor.

Amtrak "wanted to become part of the agreement (between CSX and Florida)," Licko said. "What this does is require the state to buy insurance to cover accidents. All that Amtrak is asking for is to get covered in that insurance agreement."

But while controversy stalked the CSX bill, no such outcry has been raised so far on the shielding of Amtrak.

On Thursday, the liability protection passed as part a larger House bill (HB 599) 99-17. It now heads to the Senate for approval. Only Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, spoke against the liability protection, saying it unfairly shifted the burden onto taxpayers.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, said there was no issue and that Kriseman was "making a mountain out of a molehill."

The larger bill deals mostly with having the state Department of Transportation hand over all of its wetlands money to the private mitigation banking industry, despite studies showing that most mitigation banks have done a poor job of restoring wetlands.

Pilon said he amended the bill when a lobbyist for Amtrak, Chris Dudley of Southern Strategy Group, proposed a section that let the state hold Amtrak harmless of any liability, regardless of whether the damages were caused by the "fault, failure, negligence, misconduct, nonfeasance or misfeasance" by Amtrak or its successors, officers and agents.

Liability is no small issue between Amtrak and CSX. Amtrak operates in 46 states, but it doesn't own the tracks it uses. Instead, it must pay to use them.

In Florida and the Southeast, that means much of the track used by Amtrak is owned by CSX. And because of liability protections, when things go wrong, the one that pays is Amtrak, which survives with the help of federal taxpayers.

According to a 2004 New York Times analysis, Amtrak paid more than $186 million since 1984 for accidents blamed entirely or mostly on others. In each instance, the analysis found, freight railroads such as CSX were accused of playing the major role, or at least a contributing role, in causing those accidents. When an Amtrak passenger train in 2002 jumped the tracks in Putnam County north of DeLand — killing four people and injuring 142 — Amtrak paid the damages. Yet investigators concluded that the CSX track had not been properly stabilized and that oversight of maintenance had been lax.

Wording that states Amtrak would be shielded even in crashes it causes was open to interpretation, Pilon acknowledged. But he said the intent of the bill was not to shift the liability from Amtrak to Florida taxpayers.

"It reads that way in the bill, but it simply reads that way," Pilon said. "If there's consternation about it, I'm sure the Senate will take care of it.

"But this is not to create any greater liability for the citizens."

The measure will likely draw the attention of state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. A vocal critic of the 2009 CSX deal, Dockery objected then partly because of her concern that other entities would want the same protection.

Pilon said that while the DOT worked with him on the wetlands section of the bill, it had been mum on the rail amendment. Calls to DOT spokesman Dick Kane weren't returned.

Few others have complained, Holland said, because, as Dockery made clear in 2009, it's a tough argument to make that it's fair to deny others what CSX already has.

"Once you cross that line, how do you say Amtrak doesn't deserve the same protection?" Holland said. "I call it the Amtrak me-too bill."

Correction: The California train crash where an engineer was found to be texting before he ran a red light and where train operators ultimately paid $200 million in claims happened in 2008 in the San Fernando Valley. An article and photos Sunday incorrectly attributed the details of the 2008 crash to another accident.

If Amtrak crashes, Florida taxpayers might be forced to pay 02/25/12 [Last modified: Sunday, February 26, 2012 8:04pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Treasury secretary's wife boasts of travel on government plane, touts high fashion


    U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's wife, Louise Linton, boasted of flying on a government plane with her husband to Kentucky on Monday and then named the numerous fashion brands she wore on the trip in an unusual social media post that only became more bizarre minutes later.

    Steven Mnuchin and his then- financee Louise Linton watch as President Donald Trump speaks during Mnuchin's swearing-in ceremony as  treasury secretary in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 13. [Mandel Ngan | AFP via Getty Images]
  2. Ford, Chinese partner look at possible electric car venture


    BEIJING — Ford Motor Co. and a Chinese automaker said Tuesday they are looking into setting up a joint venture to develop and manufacture electric cars in China.

  3. Judge throws out $458,000 condo sale, says Clearwater attorney tricked bidders

    Real Estate

    CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold on Monday threw out the $458,100 sale of a gulf-front condo because of what he called an "unscrupulous" and "conniving" scheme to trick bidders at a foreclosure auction.

    John Houde, left, whose Orlando copany was the high  bidder June 8 at the foreclosure auction of a Redington Beach condo, looks in the direction of Clearwater lawyer and real estate investor Roy C. Skelton, foreground,  during a hearing Monday before Pinellas County Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold.  [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times ]
  4. Pasco EDC names business incubator head in Dade City, will open second site


    Pasco County economic development officials are busy reigniting their business start-up resources following the departure earlier this year of Krista Covey, who ran the Pasco Economic Development Council's SMARTStart business incubator in Dade City.

    Andrew Romaner was promoted this summer to serve as program director of the Dade City SMARTStart Entrepreneur Center, a start-up incubator service of the Pasco Economic Development Council. He succeeds Krista Covey, who relocated to Texas for another startup position. [Courtesy of Pasco EDC]
  5. Proposed Tampa tax increase prompts second thoughts about Riverfront Park spending

    Local Government

    TAMPA — Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park has a $35.5 million price tag with something for everyone, including a rowers' boathouse, a sheltered cove for beginning paddlers, an event lawn, a community center with sweeping views of downtown and all kinds of athletic courts — even pickleball! — when it opens …

    Expect the $35.5 million redevelopment of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park to be a big part of the discussion when the Tampa City Council discusses Mayor Bob Buckhorn's proposed budget and property tax increase this Thursday. LUIS SANTANA   |   Times