Crist Signs Bill to Help Commuter Rail Lines

December 17th, 2009 by

TALLAHASSEE | Commuter rail lines serving two of Florida’s largest metropolitan areas will get a boost under legislation signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Charlie Crist.

The bill, passed in a special session, will clear the way for the $1.2 billion SunRail project in the Orlando area and provide an annual $15 million state subsidy for the Tri-Rail commuter system in South Florida.

Crist and other state officials also contend the legal commitment to rail service will improve the state’s chances for winning a $2.5 billion federal grant to build a high-speed rail line linking Tampa and Orlando.

“The bill I sign today will truly modernize Florida’s transportation system,” Crist said.

He called the rail projects “the building blocks of a better statewide transportation network,” linking the train service with the state’s major roads, airports and seaports.

The projects “will yield benefits far beyond the rail lines themselves,” Crist said. “They will make the daily commute cleaner and more efficient with fewer cars on the road.”

Crist also said the commuter rail projects – as well as the potential high-speed train – will bring thousands of new jobs to the state and increase economic activity.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, one of the leading critics of the SunRail project, said Crist and Department of Transportation officials were applying “fuzzy math” to their job claims, including counting the same jobs over a number of years.

Dockery said the rail legislation “might be good for Florida if only its hopelessly optimistic claims were true.”

“Does anyone really believe that 200 jobs over 30 years actually equates to 6,000 new jobs?” she asked.

Dockery has also criticized the SunRail project for being the most costly per-mile rail line acquisition in the country and for largely shifting the liability for accidents on the line from CSX Transportation to the state.

In addition to enhancing commuter lines, supporters of the legislation say it also establishes a statewide framework for rail projects, including the potential high-speed rail line.

“I am pleased that we have achieved a comprehensive vision for rail in our state as well as commuter rail for Central Florida,” state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said in a statement. “Now our attention turns to Washington as we work to ensure that Florida’s applications for federal taxpayer dollars set aside for rail projects are funded.”

The rail legislation remains dogged by controversy, with Crist earlier this week asking the state’s inspector general to look into claims that state transportation officials used code words – like “pancakes” and “french toast” – to shield e-mails involving the SunRail project from public records requests.

Crist called the use of the breakfast-related words “odd,” but he said he did not think the investigation would have any impact on the new law.

State DOT officials, who led the lobbying effort to pass the rail legislation over the past few years, were conspicuously absent from the bill-signing ceremony at the state Capitol.

Asked where DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos was, Crist replied: “I don’t know where she is.”


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