TALLAHASSEE — Twice in two years, proposed commuter rail in Central Florida died despite backing from powerful political and business leaders. Both times, Lakeland Sen. Paula Dockery engineered the train wreck.
Today, as the Legislature convenes in a special session to consider commuter rail legislation for a third time, Dockery is once again standing up against her party's leadership.
But this time, the stakes are higher and the spotlight on her far brighter. Now, Dockery is running for governor. And the Senate president says he has the votes to make SunRail happen, in spite of her objections.
Yet even SunRail backers say Dockery's tenacious skepticism of the proposal has shaped the latest version — and is likely to, once again, help determine its fate.
As she goes up against the more conservative Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum for governor, her fight this week and next could bring her much-needed attention and name recognition among voters.
Her opposition to the SunRail proposal helps differentiate her from McCollum, the party-backed favorite who this week reiterated his support for the deal.
"The state Legislature ought to approve commuter rail and all the mechanisms that go with it," McCollum said. "We need to have rail, both high speed and commuter. We need to move forward; we don't need to mess around."
But Dockery remains steadfast.
"I did not want this to come up again, and I don't want it to be a campaign issue," said Dockery. "But part of why I got into the campaign is that people said, you are different and we like where you stand. So I'm going to be consistent about where I stand, and where I have stood for the past two years."
Senate and House leaders have tweaked the earlier SunRail proposal to cast it as a statewide push for mass transit that includes SunRail, high-speed rail and the Tri-Rail system in South Florida. They have also revised language so that the state would not be fully liable for all accidents.
Thank Dockery for that, said Senate President Jeff Atwater.
"It's been the quality of her historical debate that have led us to a better place, to a broader rail policy for Florida," Atwater said. "She's made it clear to me she is not yet comfortable with this. But I believe this is a good policy, and I believe it's better because of Paula Dockery's insistence that it be better."
Dockery said the current proposal doesn't alleviate her concerns. They are the same ones she laid out in her passionate floor debate during the spring session.
She believes the SunRail cost, more than $1.2 billion to buy and upgrade 61 miles of track, is too high. And she doesn't want state taxpayers on the hook for accidents that happen along the railway. She also worries the project would bring more freight traffic to Lakeland.
"The average rail sale is $666,000 per mile, yet we're (proposing) paying $10.5 million per mile?" Dockery said. "This is a sweetheart deal for CSX."
Dockery's energy and mastery of the ins and outs of rail politics impressed several members of the Broward Women's Republican Club Federated, which met Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale.
Wearing a fire engine-red jacket and speaking quickly, Dockery spewed facts and figures while using a map of rail through Central Florida as her prop.
"I'm exhausted just listening to her,'' said 80-year-old Kallie Xenakis of Deerfield Beach. "I've never seen anyone with that much knowledge, and I was impressed.''
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, hasn't committed his vote but is leaning toward opposing it, as he did last spring.
"It's important to have someone like her who is willing to ask questions and demand answers," Bennett said. "And I know I have a lot of questions."
All indications are Dockery will need Bennett's vote and several others.
During the final hours of the 2009 session, legislation for SunRail died by a 23-16 vote. Before the vote, Dockery scurried about the Senate floor corralling votes from Democrats and Republicans.
Dockery said she believes she has the 21 votes needed to defeat the proposal again. But some of her allies are no longer in the Senate, and the inclusion of TriRail funding in the current plan is likely to sway some South Florida Democrats toward a "yes" vote.
Sen. Al Lawson, the chamber's Democratic leader, voted with Dockery last time, but said he is likely to support SunRail this go-round.
"I think it's very close," said Lawson, D-Tallahassee. "I would say the (Senate leadership) doesn't have the votes right now. We know Dockery is going to try to kill it."
Dockery's husband, Doc Dockery, spent millions on a campaign for high-speed rail in the late '90s. She said she shares his support for commuter rail and high-speed rail, and she is willing to reconsider her past opposition to the SunRail proposal if Senate leaders craft a deal that is cheaper and doesn't put liability on taxpayers.
"I've said all along: Renegotiate the deal and you'll probably have a unanimous vote," she said. "They have to get to 21 to pass this, and right now they are not going to get there."
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Beth Reinhard contributed. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.