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Appraisals add fuel to CSX commuter rail debate

TALLAHASSEE — Two new appraisals of the route for the proposed Orlando commuter rail likely will spark more debate over the contested project.

Florida transportation officials have said the $491-million deal benefits the state because major freight improvements also will be done instead of paying for the market value of 61.5-miles of railroad.

But early appraisals suggest the Central Florida route is worth less than the value of the 2006 deal.

The appraisals were filed Feb. 28 and March 3 as part of the expected summer closing on the purchase. The Department of Transportation provided the reports Friday at the request of the St. Petersburg Times.

The Feb. 28 report valued the rail land and improvements at $407.5-million. The March 3 report was $420.7-million.

Last week, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos told the Times that the state "instead of handing CSX money, a blank check" worked out "a deal that was good for the whole state."

"The $150-million that we pay for the actual tracks, I mean the value of the land and the tracks is far more than what we are paying," Kopelousos said. '"Our view was instead of handing them a check for all that, we asked for what was important."

Besides the money to buy the Orlando area rail, the state is paying $341-million on a variety of improvements related to CSX's freight business.

But Tampa Bay area lawmakers, led by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, have questioned spending so much to benefit a private company in a deal they say lacked enough public scrutiny and would increase freight traffic in downtown Lakeland.

Dockery questioned the timing of the appraisals, because the deal was announced by Gov. Jeb Bush in August 2006.

"Had they been done before [the deal], we could have publicly discussed them," she said.

The appraisal process isn't complete, though, because enhancements and freight business isn't factored in yet. The figures are based on the land's September 2006 value.

Transportation officials also note CSX will pay the state a per-car charge when it uses the commuter route in off-hours.

"They could've just as easily taken that money and spent it in Chicago or somewhere else in the country," DOT's attorney Alexis Yarbrough said this month. "What the agreement did was say, 'We think you need to keep that money in Florida, and make improvements here.' "

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

Appraisals add fuel to CSX commuter rail debate 03/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2008 11:18am]
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