Florida Lawmakers Go from Opposing to Approving Huge Rail Deal

Published January 18, 2010

The most expensive rail deal in U.S. history has become law in Florida. Critics charge the price was vastly inflated.

After failing twice before, a plan that will link several central Florida communities and clear the way for new commuter and high-speed rail systems in the state won approval during a six-day special session of the Florida legislature.

Governor Charlie Crist (R) signed the bill into law soon after its passage in December. It allows the state to purchase 61.5 miles of track from the freight railroad CSX for $432 million. CSX will then lease the track from the state.

High Cost, Big Risk
Critics have said the deal is 10 times more expensive than the track is
worth. In addition, the bill shifts liability for any accidents caused by a CSX freight train from the company to the taxpayers, requiring the state to purchase a $200 million insurance policy to cover any major accidents by freight or passenger trains.

State Sen. Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland), a candidate for governor and opponent of the sale, was particularly harsh in her criticism.

“Nowhere does it appear that [the Florida] Department of Transportation tried to renegotiate the price of this deal,” she said. “Why should taxpayers pay to improve CSX’s freight tracks across the state? CSX is a Fortune 500 company. Repairing its infrastructure should be the company’s own responsibility.”

Federal Money, Rising Unemployment
Although similar legislation had been defeated, the prospect of federal stimulus money this year and the state’s deepening unemployment crisis led previous opponents to rethink the idea. Lawmakers and proponents of the bill cited $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money for a high-speed rail system between the Orlando area and Tampa Bay, which must be linked to a commuter rail system in order to qualify for the federal funding.

As part of an agreement with legislators from South Florida, the bill also increases the state’s subsidy for the existing Tri-Rail commuter rail line in South Florida by up to $13 million to $15 million a year.

More Agency Bureaucracies
The bill creates two new agencies: the Statewide Passenger Rail Commission to serve in an advisory capacity to the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Legislature concerning passenger rail issues in Florida; and the Florida Rail Enterprise within the DOT to oversee the development and administration of the state-owned passenger rail systems.

Supporters saw the bill as a major step forward for Florida’s infrastructure.

“This bill is a framework to build a future infrastructure for the state of Florida,” State Senator Jeremy Ring, (D-Margate) told the Jacksonville Times-Union.

Christian R. Cámara ([email protected]) is director of the Florida Insurance Project at The Heartland Institute.