Senate President Jeff Atwater wants December special session on SunRail

WASHINGTON — Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater wants a legislative special session in December to deal with a controversial commuter rail proposal, contending it is key to securing federal funding for a high-speed line between Orlando and Tampa.

Atwater's announcement came Monday after a meeting with federal transportation officials who, he said, stressed Florida needs to show a commitment to rail as it seeks $2.5 billion in stimulus dollars, to be awarded sometime this winter.

"This administration in Washington wants to get moving with investment in infrastructure," Atwater said, joined by two other state senators and U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and George LeMieux.

Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, envisions a special session that would sign off on a deal for SunRail, a proposed 61-mile commuter line through Central Florida, and one that would provide a continuing source of funding for the existing Tri-Rail system in South Florida. Atwater said he would revisit a proposed $2 surcharge on rental cars to fund Tri-Rail.

"This is about rail in Florida. It's not about SunRail specifically," Atwater said. "I don't mean to be just saying that as a disguise. That's what their communication was to us today, 'Look, we need to see long-term commitment on rail activity in Florida if we're going to make this investment.' "

Gov. Charlie Crist welcomed a special session, which costs an estimated $100,000 per day. "It's necessary because, No. 1, we need transportation arteries for Florida," he said. (Crist wants Atwater to consider adding a Seminole Tribe gambling compact to the mix, but Atwater was noncommittal. "One step at a time," he said.)

House Speaker Larry Cretul, who would have to agree to the special session call, spoke briefly with Atwater on Monday afternoon and the two plan to talk again soon.

SunRail has proven highly controversial, but Atwater and his allies think they have a powerful argument, courtesy of President Barack Obama. Though Florida's application for $2.5 billion in stimulus money would likely fare well on its own merit, advocates can now dangle the possibility of a giant missed opportunity. Two dozen states are vying for $8 billion in stimulus money for high speed rail.

At the same time, the state's bleak financial outlook could dampen calls for hundreds of millions in funding for SunRail. And Atwater conceded there was no guarantee that moving forward on SunRail would net federal money for high speed rail.

The battle lies in Atwater's Senate, where twice now critics have defeated SunRail despite well-financed pushes from special interests. The most recent proposal included the state paying $150 million for CSX rail track in Central Florida then paying another $496 million in improvements to CSX facilities and to a CSX freight line west of the commuter system. Hundreds of millions more would come from local and federal governments to complete the $1.2 billion project.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, the leading opponent, said the federal money should not be tied to passage of SunRail.

"If they are serious about SunRail," she said, "they need to cut a better deal. We're throwing around taxpayer money like it's Monopoly money."

Dockery said the state should be more focused on fixing Tri-Rail, saying the state could have to pay back about $256 million in federal grants if it does not agree on a continuing funding source for the 20-year-old line.

Atwater and others stop short of saying the federal money will only come if the state initiatives are funded, but that's the implication.

It's partly drawn from the talks Monday and conversations LeMieux and Nelson have had with officials including U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who in a recent visit to Orlando implored the state to get serious about rail.

The message resonated Monday with state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, who visited Washington on Monday with Atwater and Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

"We have fumbled a number of times," Lawson said, "and it's obvious this time that it might be the last horizon."

Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark and Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Senate President Jeff Atwater wants December special session on SunRail 10/19/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 9:33am]

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