The Legislature should slow down the state's plan to subsidize a commuter rail line in the Orlando area. The proposal has long been plagued by serious questions, and the questions only keep coming.
The cost to taxpayers, which keeps rising, needs another look. So does the impact of diverting this money away from competing transportation needs. The state needs to explain how more trains and trucks in Lakeland and Winter Haven will affect those two Polk County communities and the surrounding region. Officials also need to explain why the state should be legally liable for accidents that involve private train operators.
These questions should have been answered in 2004 and 2005. Instead, then-Gov. Jeb Bush's administration chose to work privately with CSX, which unnecessarily clouded the deal with secrecy and fueled suspicion. The arrangement calls for the state to spend $650-million to buy 61 miles of CSX tracks in the Orlando area. Those tracks would be used for commuter rail. The money also would help the company improve its freight lines and build a new rail yard near Winter Haven. The bulk of the spending bill is before lawmakers this legislative session. A separate bill, said by supporters to be critical, would give even private train operators immunity from accidents on the commuter line.
The issue here is not whether Orlando needs commuter rail, but at what cost to taxpayers and impact to nearby communities. Rail in Orlando would ease congestion on Interstate 4 and form the backbone of a statewide transit system. But recent appraisals suggest the state is spending at least $70-million more than it might have paid for just the rail property. Officials need to explain how they settled on a price and how the money to move forward was slipped through the Legislature with little or no public discussion of the project's scope.
Several legislators and local officials in Polk fear the increase in rail freight and truck traffic would worsen conditions in downtown Lakeland and on Winter Haven-area roads. State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who chairs the Transportation Appropriations Committee, said he wants a broader review of impacts to the entire Tampa Bay area. It makes no sense to ease congestion with rail in one area only to worsen road conditions in another. That's the problem now with looking at transportation in parochial terms. Fasano also questions the need and practicality of giving state immunity to rail line operators. It is another example of a secondary issue undermining support for rail transit.
To further complicate matters, two powerful Polk state lawmakers own property near the proposed Winter Haven rail yard. That makes it all the more important to bring a fresh look and newfound transparency to the process. There is a legitimate state interest in bringing commuter rail to the Orlando area. But the cost and the route have to be right, the impacts have to be reasonable and the public has to have the opportunity to shape this instrument of growth in the region. The Legislature should slow down and demand more answers before moving ahead with CSX.