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Revised Orlando commuter rail bill still drawing legislative critics

TALLAHASSEE — After collapsing amid cries of corporate welfare last year, the Orlando area's commuter rail project has gotten a makeover.

The state Department of Transportation spent nearly $300,000 on polling, focus groups and a naming contest, giving what was once known as the "CSX bill" — because of a lofty payout to the Jacksonville railroad giant — the new name SunRail and a colorful logo.

That's not the only new tack for the 61-mile, $1.2 billion project, which has Gov. Charlie Crist aboard.

It's a "desperate economic stimulus" to Florida, said Sen. Lee Constantine, author of the rail bill (SB1212), before it passed its first Senate committee by a 6-3 vote Wednesday.

"This is not last year's commuter bill," said Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs.

Some of the old arguments remain. Supporters say it would unclog Interstate 4 and could lead to places like Tampa Bay building commuter systems too. South Florida already has commuter rail, Tri-Rail.

"It's always been about creating passenger rail in Central Florida," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a leading advocate for the project.

But critics, led by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, say a new name doesn't change the fact that it's a bad deal for Florida, shifting the company's liability on taxpayers. She failed to pass 11 amendments meant to change the project but promised a fight as the rest of the Senate weighs in.

Besides paying CSX $150 million for 61 miles of rail, the state agreed in 2006 to pay to improve freight routes and make related upgrades worth nearly $500 million. Freight traffic could increase in Lakeland and other cities, including Dade City — a problem to Dockery and other critics.

The bills in the Senate and House — where a similar bill is expected to be approved by the full House — also keeps CSX from being liable for damages to a commuter train if a CSX train crashes into it. CSX wanted the no-fault pledge to sell the property.

"You brand it, you bring in all the people who agree — but even in the people in the various counties, do they really know what their financial liability is going to be?" said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who voted against the bill.

Much of the fight is still expected in the Senate. Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, said he opposed the project last year and still worries about spending so much money when the state has a drastic budget shortfall.

However, a key measure that poisoned its chances in the Senate last year is gone. In 2008, trial lawyers fought the bill because it granted businesses immunity from lawsuits and capped fees and damages. That measure — and the trial lawyers' opposition — is gone, threatening the coalition that scuttled the project.

Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, put the Senate in a standstill last year partly over lawmakers trying to tack the commuter rail measure into her highway bill.

This year? Bullard voted for the bill Wednesday because the immunity protection was gone.

"You certainly presented a great argument here," Bullard told transportation officials.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Revised Orlando commuter rail bill still drawing legislative critics 03/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 7:39am]
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