The Florida Senate made a responsible decision by killing the commuter rail plan for metro Orlando in the closing hours of the legislative session this month. The proposal to buy CSX tracks and share the corridor with the freight rail carrier was too costly for Florida taxpayers and held the state liable for accidents, even those that CSX caused through its own negligence or misconduct. The giveaway was the wrong set of terms and the wrong model for a state that is far too late in pursuing commuter rail in some of its largest metro areas, including Orlando and Tampa Bay. But for all its flaws, the Central Florida SunRail project has its strengths and should be renegotiated.
The measure would have paid CSX $150 million for 61 miles of track from DeLand south through Sanford and Orlando to Poinciana. The state would make an additional $496 million in track improvements to a freight corridor west of the commuter line. In addition to the purchase costs, the federal, state and five local funding partners would spend an additional $615 million to double-track the line (to allow CSX to share it), build the commuter train stations and add other amenities. Beyond being one of the costliest rail purchases in history, the deal also called for the state to cover damages to passengers or anyone in the rail corridor regardless of whether — or how — CSX caused a crash.
The state and SunRail's local funding partners, led by the city of Orlando, need to push CSX to lower the purchase price and accept liability for its own corporate conduct. The improvements to the CSX freight line west of the SunRail route clearly need to be credited toward the purchase, especially since the intersection work is already completed or under way despite the Senate having killed the track-purchase deal.
The Central Florida partners also need to keep their alliance intact. The regional partnership and the funding arrangement that Orlando and Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Volusia counties put together was the strongest part of SunRail and a model for other communities, particularly the Tampa Bay area. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said last week he has not given up, and he should keep working on the project until it is a viable deal for taxpayers.
Meanwhile, the state needs to ensure that the money committed to SunRail is not siphoned away for other projects. Florida legislators are already raiding $120 million from the transportation trust fund to balance next year's budget, even though the trust has outstanding commitments of about $6 billion and a balance of only $370 million. The SunRail proposal was overly generous to CSX, but the state should not immediately steer all of the money to other projects. The Central Florida region will need ready access to cash to bring CSX back to the table before contract talks expire in June. The state's ability to pay its share also will be key to securing federal money.
The political and business leadership in Tampa Bay can learn a few things from the failed effort — one they foolishly embraced in hopes of securing support from Central Florida for bay area rail down the road. Tampa Bay sent the wrong message to CSX about how much this community would be willing to pay for similar use of the freight corridor. The trick for Tampa Bay was not necessarily to see SunRail succeed at any cost, but to have its terms be reasonable enough to sell the public on rail in Tampa Bay. That is going to be difficult enough under the most favorable terms to the public.
Tampa Bay leaders and the state should help Central Florida try to revive SunRail. That will require reworking financing and liability to more fairly spread the risks. Commuter rail should come to metro Orlando — and to Tampa Bay — but the costs need to make sense and the model needs to work for other communities.