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Orlando commuter rail plan returns with tweaks

TALLAHASSEE — Trying to salvage its chances, a Senate panel revamped a troubled $650-million plan Tuesday to build commuter rail for Orlando.

Florida officials agreed in 2006 to pay Jacksonville's CSX $150-million for 61.5 miles of railroad and spend the remaining money on projects that benefit CSX's freight business. But the project has been slowed by lawmakers' complaints that it would unduly benefit CSX and send unwanted freight trains to Polk County without enough review.

At Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster's urging, a Senate panel voted 4-1 for the state to buy only the rail route for up to $450-million. It also backed a "no-fault" insurance plan that CSX says is necessary to do the project. The move would strip at least some of the disputed freight spending.

Webster, R-Winter Garden, said the House version of the bill (HB 1399) lacked enough support to win Senate approval before the session closes May 2. House supporter Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he needed time to review Webster's proposal but called the House bill thoughtful.

A House panel approved its version of the bill with the liability deal but not the $450-million measure Monday in a 25-6 vote.

In defeating a competing move by Jacksonville Democratic Sen. Tony Hill to reject the CSX project, Webster argued that the commuter rail provision ought to be passed to help traffic-ravaged Orlando. "We've built roads all over this state with our taxpayer dollars, and how dare these people come in and say, 'Uh, we don't like what you're doing.' "

Opposing the liability deal, Chairman Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, voted no on Webster's change to the bill (SB 1978). Fasano predicted the bill will face more attacks on the Senate floor. Its final hearing is expected in his committee Thursday.

If Webster's proposal passes, there are still hurdles. He did win incentives, including higher caps on insurance limits and attorneys fees, but Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and CSX spokesman Gary Sease said Webster's changes would require them to renegotiate parts of the deal.

Orlando commuter rail plan returns with tweaks 04/22/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 3:31pm]

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