TALLAHASSEE — A bill that's crucial to bringing commuter rail to Orlando passed its first test among lawmakers Thursday, despite disagreement over its benefits to a railroad company.
The House infrastructure committee's 8-2 vote would make the state pay for damages or injuries on the commuter rail even if Jacksonville-based CSX's trains cause the harm.
Rep. Rich Glorioso, who sponsored the change, said giving CSX the "no-fault" deal in the bill (HB 1399) was necessary or the company would not sell a Central Florida rail line to the state for commuter service.
The Legislature has to approve the liability standard under the state's $491-million deal with CSX for commuter trains. Without it, CSX officials say they cannot go through with the agreement. It requires the state to take out a $200-million insurance policy, costing $2-million annually. CSX takes full responsibility only when the company is the only one involved in a mishap.
"I have great concern with … the liability that this bill proposes, essentially exposing the taxpayers to covering that liability," said Rep. Michael Scionti, R-Tampa, who opposed the proposal with Rep. Susan Bucher, R-West Palm Beach.
In 2006, Gov. Jeb Bush struck a deal with CSX to pay $150-million for 61.5 miles of railroad to run commuter trains. But the state also agreed to pay $341-million to help CSX's freight rail operation, including overpasses and a massive rail yard in Winter Haven.
The plan would increase freight train traffic through Plant City into downtown Lakeland, and dramatically hike truck traffic in Winter Haven.
While the Orlando area wants commuter rail to ease traffic, some lawmakers in Polk County and the Tampa Bay area said they were unaware of how the plan would affect those areas. Those lawmakers, led by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, have pressed for a delay until the issues can be resolved.
"This is important to Florida's future," said former House Speaker John Thrasher, who lobbies for Orlando, as he buttonholed Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, in a hallway minutes before the meeting.
Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, withdrew a similar bill in the Senate on Thursday. But Baker said he will try to keep the project moving.
"It's only March, and it made it out," Baker said of the House panel's vote.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.