Government

SunRail Pushed Onto Rick Scott by GOP Lawmakers

If 2009 special session tied governor's hands to the tracks, Sen. Dockery sees a way out
By: Kenric Ward | Posted: May 20, 2011 3:55 AM
Amtrak train

CSX tracks, shown here, are vital for SunRail in Florida / Credit: Amtrak

While Gov. Rick Scott looks to trim the $69.7 billion state budget through line-item vetoes, lawmakers put him -- and Florida taxpayers -- in a fiscal box with one big-ticket item: SunRail.

Scott has been weighing a decision on the $1.2 billion commuter train project for months. Having rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds for a proposed high-speed rail venture earlier this year, SunRail appeared ripe for derailment as well.

But, as sources told Sunshine State News last week, Scott may green-light the Central Florida line after all. The ostensible reason: He was boxed in by Republican legislators who previously committed state funds, and pushed the controversial project past the point of no return.

Convening a special session in December 2009, then-state Senate President Jeff Atwater tied SunRail to the ill-fated HSR scheme. The North Palm Beach Republican said the Legislature needed to act quickly to secure federal stimulus funding for a high-speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa. At the same time, lawmakers would push forward for federal funds for SunRail.

"This administration in Washington wants to get moving with investment in infrastructure," Atwater said at the time. In a show of bipartisan support, he was joined by U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and George LeMieux, R-Fla.

Also on board: state Sen. Mike Haridopolos and Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner who, along with LeMieux, are now vying for the U.S. Senate seat held by Nelson.

While the GOP bashing of so-called "ObamaRail" still lay in the distance, leading state Republicans and Democrats appeared united after the 2009 special session. It was all backslaps and handshakes when then-Gov. Charlie Crist signed off on the rail deals.

With the nascent tea party movement distracted by the pitched battle over Obama's health-care bill in Washington, Tallahassee's politicians ran under the radar. SunRail, which had been defeated twice before at the Legislature, was getting on track.

As Florida lawmakers set the fiscal and legal wheels in motion, SunRail quietly gathered institutional momentum. Within a year, the state would place $173 million in an escrow account to pay CSX Railroad for tracks that SunRail would use.

That crucial deposit occurred just a month before Scott assumed office.

With the money safely in escrow, the Florida Department of Transportation officially asked the federal government for the more than $300 million it had pledged toward $615 million in SunRail's initial capital costs.

U.S. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Orlando, was well-positioned to push the needed funds through Congress.

The state money was earmarked for CSX, the Jacksonville-based railroad company that owns the 61 miles of tracks designated for SunRail. According to the arrangement, $150 million of the escrowed funds would go for the tracks and right of way; the remaining $23 million would defray the cost of moving portions of a CSX maintenance-and-switching station.

Scott, in a recent interview with the Orlando Sentinel, alluded to the conundrum he faces in trying to halt SunRail:

“This is different than high-speed rail. This is money that’s going to come out of that area of the state’s Department of Transportation money. So it’s not like I have to worry about taxes being raised when we’re walking into a budget deficit.

"It’s totally different in that regard," he said.


A RAILROAD JOB BY REPUBLICAN LEADERS


Calling Scott's comments a blend of justification and obfuscation, SunRail critics say the project sets up taxpayers for huge cost overruns, disappointingly low ridership and untold liability.

In other words, the same concerns that Scott cited when he killed the high-speed rail venture.

But with the Legislature having already allocated funds and passing the enabling laws, some observers believe that Scott may not have legal standing to block SunRail.

Politically, the SunRail saga presents an inconvenient history for Republicans running on an anti-Washington platform of fiscal conservatism. That's because their support puts them on the same train as Nelson and Buddy Dyer, the Democratic mayor of Orlando.

After the Republican-led Legislature approved the SunRail funding package at the 2009 special session, Dyer bragged that the project "will create nearly 10,000 jobs almost immediately. Over the next 25 years, SunRail will create more than 250,000 jobs and create more than $8 billion in economic impact.

"Passage of this policy framework for rail in our state represents a pivotal moment for our Orlando community and the entire state of Florida," Dyer said.

Hasner now says that times have changed.

"The reality is, if we don't have the money, we don't have the money," Hasner explained to the Miami Herald earlier this year as he was ramping up his run for U.S. Senate. "Governor Scott did the right thing by looking at out-year budgets, realizing we don't have the money and rejecting it."

Yet Florida wasn't exactly rolling in dough in 2009. That year, lawmakers had cut the budget, raised taxes and grabbed Washington stimulus dollars to fill the gap.

Haridopolos, who touts himself as a government reformer as well as a fiscal conservative, takes hits from SunRail critics who say the high-priced project was rammed down taxpayers' throats.

"The voters never approved a funding source for the 99-year term of the project," says Beth Dillaha, who heads the opposition group, Veto SunRail.

According to financial agreements for the project, Washington is supposed to commit $300 million -- 50 percent of the upfront capital costs. But only $40 million was in the president's fiscal 2011 budget and $50 million is earmarked for 2012.


DOCKERY: SCOTT HAS OPTIONS TO HALT RUNAWAY TRAIN


State Sen. Paula Dockery says SunRail's price tag is already ballooning, and points to an FDOT document that pegs the 30-year costs at $2.66 billion -- double the advertised figure. She said such expenses, as well as an estimated $130 million in SunRail-related line-item allocations embedded in the current budget, should have the governor reaching for his veto pen.

Rejecting the notion that Scott has been handed a legal fait accompli, the Lakeland Republican maintains that the governor has several ways to undo the Legislature's action.

"The deal cannot go through until the state purchases tracks from CSX, and that can only happen with the signature of the governor or the director of FDOT," Dockery asserts.

Alternatively, Dockery suggests that Scott could change the purchase to a lease "and get out after a couple of years because it didn't work.

"Or he could stipulate that local governments must come up with the required funding sources, or make his approval contingent on a public referendum where voters agree to tax themselves," Dockery said.

Ultimately, the senator -- an unabashed supporter of high-speed rail and an unrelenting opponent of SunRail -- believes the governor could kick the commuter train back to the feds.

"He can say, 'Until we get that promised $300 million, we're not going to close,'" she declares.

Haridopolos, Hasner, LeMieux and Atwater did not respond to Sunshine State News' requests for comment. But Sen. Mike Fasano, a consistent supporter of rail projects and a Crist ally, is unwavering.

"Even though SunRail is not in his district, the U.S. Department of Transportation has approved it, so he hopes the governor will allow the project to continue," said Greg Giordano, spokesman for the New Port Richey Republican who chaired the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee in 2009.

Meanwhile, Scott remains, officially, on the fence. Speaking again of the difference between high-speed rail and SunRail, he told the Sentinel:

"I know where the [SunRail] money’s coming from. That’s the positive. The negative is, it's coming from other places around in that (sic) areas where it would have been spent in different ways.”

Scott spokesman Lane Wright confirmed Thursday that the governor had still not decided whether to say yea or nay to SunRail.

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Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

Comments (8)

Richard Riker
7:05PM MAY 20TH 2011
The legislature passed this travesty in a closed door special session. Why? Because it couldn't stand the light of day. This is one of the worse pieces of sneaky legislation that was ever passed in this state. This is nothing more than openly picking the pockets of Florida voters. T.J. Fishs' MPO requested Eustis Fl. support this measure but last night in a vote of 4 to 1 they flatly rejected any support for this project.
Robert Freeman
10:23AM MAY 20TH 2011
Thanks for the balanced reporting of Sun Rail. The Governor should let it go to a referendum of the citizens to see if they want to tax themselves for this project. That would be a fair and honest proposal, whether your a proponent or an opponent of Sun Rail
Fred O'Neal
9:09AM MAY 20TH 2011
For every $2 ticket purchased on TriRail in South Florida, local goverment pays an additional $98 dollars in operating costs. Is it realistic to expect that the economics of SunRail will be any different? Let's try a little fiscal responsibility for a change.
William Shallcross
11:25AM MAY 20TH 2011
From Grease: tell me more, tell me more. A link to the Tri-Rail data will be appreciated.
RepublicanConscience
7:52AM MAY 20TH 2011
It is time to take names and numbers. Atwater was an obvious mistake; when he's up he's out. Haridopolos and Hasner, our so-called leaders in the legislature, will be a blessing to the GOP Senate race because they will fire themselves from the legislature. That leaves us with George LeMieux who cannot get past his backdoor deal with Crist that backfired. So we have three RINO's running for Senate and only one Republican Col. Mike McCalister. This issue is making the decision very clear for the Tea Party activists.
Luke Thomas
7:46AM MAY 20TH 2011
Let's cut back on law enforcement, shut down prisons, and education and build a Sun Rail! Makes perfect sense to me-you got to hand it to the GOP getting their priorities straight! And who cares about multitudes of the unemployed-they are making abortion illegal. Yes--that was top priority!
J. Thomas
6:06AM MAY 20TH 2011
Looks as though Senator Dockery is trying to law the blame on Scott when it is clear that Haridopolos, Hasner, LeMeiux, Atwater, Fasono are to blame. Maybe Haridopolos should call a special session to repeal this white elephant and attempt to prove that he is the conservative that he is claiming.
Railroaded
5:06AM MAY 20TH 2011
Okay so you are telling me that Haridopolos, Hasner, LeMieux and Bill Nelson were all for waste of tax dollars? Will you now tell me which one is the Republican and which is the Democrat?

I think it is time that Paula Dockery give up her Senate seat as she is simply over qualified. We need good constitutional attorneys and she no doubt is qualified for that position. She is no doubt still carrying the grudge of sour grapes because Her "gravy train" jumped the tracks earlier.

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