Much has been written about the CSX/Florida Department of Transportation Commuter Rail/Freight enhancement deal. Please allow me the opportunity to express my views.
I am in favor of commuter rail for Florida, and will do my best to bring it about.
However, the secret deal (FDOT management required employees and consultants to sign 70 confidentiality agreements) between the FDOT and CSX is not the answer to our transportation problems. What we have here is less of a commuter rail project and more of a corporate welfare giveaway designed to benefit a for-profit, multibillion dollar company at the expense of Florida taxpayers.
My staunch opposition to the CSX/FDOT deal is about much more than just Lakeland or the constituents throughout my Senate district. It is about what's in the best interest of all the citizens of Florida, the transparency of government and corporate responsibility.
An objective review of my record will show that I am a strong proponent of commuter rail and would love to see a plan for an integrated statewide system of commuter/passenger rail. I have been a vocal supporter of mass transit for the 12 years that I have been in the Legislature. The skyrocketing cost of gasoline coupled with the frustrating congestion along the Interstate 4 corridor have made commuters' patience grow thin, and understandably so. Floridians deserve an alternative to crowded roads and a statewide commuter/passenger rail system has the potential to be an important part of a viable solution.
The FDOT has entered into an agreement to purchase 61.5 miles of railway from CSX for a total cost exceeding $1.2-billion, with $150-million of that as the purchase price and $440-million to double-track portions of the 61.5 miles along the CSX A-line, which already is in need of improvements.
The balance would have been appropriated for various capacity improvements to benefit CSX's flourishing freight business throughout the state. Additionally, CSX would still be permitted to run its freight trains on the track that the state would own, and pay only between $2.5-million and $10-million a year to use it, depending upon the number of freight cars they run daily.
CSX would no longer have the responsibility of keeping up the tracks and may even be given the contract by the state (and more taxpayer dollars) to maintain it.
If this is a fair price to allow CSX to use our tracks for 12 hours a day, why not just have CSX retain ownership and let us pay them the $2.5-million to $10-million to run commuter rail on their tracks?
Dealing in the dark
Aside from the proposal being shrouded in secrecy, FDOT and CSX also played games with the legislation. The bill was never heard in the appropriate Senate committees to which it was referred. It was withdrawn from further consideration so the senators on the Transportation and Judiciary committees were unable to ask questions and hear public testimony. It was then added as an amendment in the Transportation Appropriations Committee and never heard by 35 of the 40 senators, never debated on the floor or brought up for a vote.
If this was to be such a great deal and marvelous opportunity for the state, why wasn't it brokered in the sunshine in full view of the public? Why weren't more senators made aware of everything it entailed?
Furthermore, the FDOT did not produce a ridership study to gauge actual commuter interest in using the rail. If we are asking taxpayers to spend more than $1-billion and shift endless freight trains into neighboring communities, shouldn't we make sure that people would actually utilize it in the first place? Shouldn't commuter rail stations be located at tourist attractions and the airport?
Indemnity an issue
As if all this failed to trigger alarm bells, CSX has been unwilling to budge on the issue of indemnity, the most potentially devastating price to the Florida taxpayer. CSX demands that Florida taxpayers pay the damages in accidents even when CSX is at fault. Even if a jury awards punitive damages intended to punish CSX for grossly negligent behavior, CSX wouldn't have to pay and be punished; Florida taxpayers would pick up the bill.
This means that CSX, with more than 3,500 safety violations in 2007 and eight deaths reported thus far in 2008, all the while achieving revenues of over $2.7-billion in just the first four months of this year, would be absolved from being held accountable for its own negligence. CSX wants us to indemnify them for their liability even if they are negligent.
Can we really afford to cross our fingers and hope that CSX, with all its violations and accidents, will improve its safety record if it is not held responsible for its actions? It is a gamble with our lives and money that I am unwilling to take.
We need answers before we cavalierly spend more than $1-billion of taxpayers' money on this project. Most important, the public deserves transparency in just how their money is being spent.
In an effort to provide passenger intercity rail, Rep. Dennis Ross and I are working with Amtrak to develop a rail plan for the entire state, beginning with the I-4 corridor. By federal law, Amtrak has priority use of the CSX and Florida East Coast Rail tracks and can provide intercity rail service. Why are proponents of this deal so set on buying 61.5 miles of track that we can already use by contracting with Amtrak to provide the same service, but one that will cover the entire I-4 corridor?
As an added bonus, Amtrak carries its own liability insurance, so the indemnification and sovereign immunity issue goes away. Why, then, was this not offered to the public as a less expensive and more expansive option? Amtrak does this successfully in 14 other states.
Now that the legislative session is over, we have the time needed to re-evaluate and renegotiate the existing commuter rail deal that is still very much alive and being held back by CSX and CSX alone by its insistence on shielding itself from liability for its own negligent acts injuring or killing users of the commuter rail system.
It was a bipartisan group of senators who formed the supermajority of the Florida Senate that helped to prohibit the dumping of costs for CSX negligence onto the backs of Florida citizens. The Legislature did not kill commuter rail for Central Florida. It can become a reality if and when CSX decides to compromise, or legislators consider other options.
I want what is best for all Floridians. I want taxpayer money to be spent on worthwhile projects. I want a Fortune 500 company to be held responsible for its own negligent acts. I want all passenger rail options to be considered and evaluated. I want a commuter rail system to be beneficial, fair and worth the investment.
Let's re-examine exactly what it is we would be buying into before we so eagerly hop aboard this train, and not let CSX take us for a ride.
Paula Dockery represents Florida Senate District 15, which includes the eastern half of Hernando County. She can be reached at email@example.com or (863) 413-2900. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.