Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 or (850) 224-7263.

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

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays DFA Danny Farquhar to make room for Brad Boxberger


    The Rays continued shuffling their bullpen, dumping RHP Danny Farquhar after Wednesday's game to make room for RHP Brad Boxberger to be activated off the DL.

    Farquhar, who worked an inning in Wednesday's 6-2 loss, had a 2-2, 4.11 record for 37 appearances, working primarily in lower leverage situations. In …

  2. USF to face Indiana in men's basketball next season


    The USF men's basketball team will get an early test from a Big Ten powerhouse next season.

  3. Rays employee helps save suicidal woman near Pirates stadium


    A Rays front-office employee joined umpire John Tumpane in saving a woman threatening to jump from a bridge near PNC Park on Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh.

    Multimedia production manager Mike Weinman, 32 (left), was walking across the Roberto Clemente Bridge with boss Larry McCabe when he saw three men …

  4. Blake Snell struggles in return as Rays fall to Pirates

    The Heater


    Blake Snell talked a good game ahead of his return to the Rays rotation Wednesday night, but he didn't pitch one.

    The Pirates’ David Freese scores on a Blake Snell wild pitch during the first inning against the Rays.
  5. College World Series title puts Florida Gators in elite company


    The Florida Gators put themselves in rare company with Tuesday night's College World Series national championship victory.

    Florida ace and Tampa native Alex Faedo (21) lets loose with his teammates after they win the Gators’ first baseball national title.