Commuter rail could still come to Central Florida, and that's a good thing. Rail supporters and CSX revived negotiations last month after learning the project might qualify for funding under the federal stimulus package. That would lower the state's contribution. Now both sides need to redraw a fundamentally flawed deal that favored the for-profit rail carrier at taxpayers' expense.
The concept for SunRail would remain the same: The state would convert an existing freight line from DeLand south through Orlando to Poinciana into a shared corridor for freight and commuters. Under terms rejected this year by the state Legislature, the state would have paid CSX $150 million for 61 miles of track and spent another $496 million for upgrades to a CSX freight line west of the shared corridor.
The up-front payout of $646 million was always awkward. Rather than a stand-alone price for the tracks, the transaction lumped the sale of the CSX corridor into a larger tax subsidy for CSX's freight operations. The new terms apparently would do the same. The only difference is that $432 million of the purchase price would now be covered by federal, not state, dollars.
The problem is not which pot of taxpayers' money the funds come from, but the price. The state needs a stand-alone price for the tracks, or else CSX needs to credit the state for public subsidies to its freight operations. The state also needs to insist that the company be responsible for any accident it may cause.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer deserves credit. Salvaging SunRail would not only be a boon to greater Orlando. The system could draw high-speed trains to Florida and help the Tampa Bay area build its own commuter rail system, too. Central Florida political leaders clearly have heard the criticisms and are responding to them. The trick now is to not fritter away the state's leverage by driving down expectations of what CSX might concede.