Miami Herald: Crist wants special session on Fla. commuter rail

Nov 5, 2009

The Miami Herald published this article on November 5, 2009

Associated Press Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Charlie Crist is seeking a special legislative session next month in hopes that lawmakers will approve a commuter rail system in central Florida.

Crist has the authority to call a special session, but wants agreement from legislative leaders before doing so. It would likely be scheduled the week of Dec. 7 when legislators are at the Capitol for committee meetings.

“It’s important to be able to do it sooner than later,” Crist said Thursday.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, also wants to get a bill out to boost Florida’s chances of attracting federal dollars to build a high-speed rail system.

“When he was in (Washington) D.C. the feds indicated they would be making their high-speed rail decision this winter and one of the things they said they were looking at was the state showing a commitment to rail transit,” said Jaryn Emhoff, spokeswoman for Atwater. “As far as Florida, they specifically cited SunRail and Tri-Rail.”

Florida lawmakers have sparred over the project the past couple of sessions and House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, is still cautious about getting a plan palatable to his members.

“To justify a special session, the speaker would need to see specifics of the Senate’s proposal and he would need the specific, clear assurance that the Senate has the votes to approve the proposal,” said Jill Chamberlin, spokeswoman for the speaker. “The House has twice supported and voted for SunRail.”

The commuter project is seen as vital to Florida’s chances of securing federal money for a high-speed system linking Orlando and Tampa and eventually extending to Miami.

“If SunRail can occur, if we can complete that project, we have a great opportunity for the bullet train and the additional jobs that that can provide,” Crist said.

The federal government is making $8 billion available for high-speed systems across the nation. A key criteria, though, is that such systems have links to local transportation networks.

A contract has already been signed between the state and CSX Transportation Inc. to have more than 60 miles of rail in Orlando go from carrying freight to carrying people. That freight, however, still needs to be moved and as part of the deal CSX would redirect traffic to neighboring Polk County.

But Sen. Paula Dockery, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, has opposed legislation that would have long, noisy, slow-running freight trains traveling through her Lakeland hometown.