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Florida House approves rail bill, 84-25

At the start of the second week of a two-week special session, the Florida House voted 84 to 25 Monday for sweeping rail legislation. The bill allows creation of the SunRail commuter line in central Florida, adds a new permanent money source for the debt-ridden Tri-Rail system in South Florida and accelerates construction of a multi-billion-dollar high-speed rail system linking Miami, Tampa and Orlando.

Supporters praised the legislation as visionary and long overdue to connect the major urban areas of the nation's fourth largest state. The bill sponsor, Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, defended the fiscal soundness of the projects and said Florida is long overdue adopting comprehensive rail policy.

"If we don't fix it now, when?" Aubuchon said, citing the feds' willingness to contribute $3 for each state dollar for SunRail. He cited a letter in which the feds threaten to demand return of more than $250-million if the state doesn't provide an operating subsidy for Tri-Rail. "This is about transforming Florida's future." 

Critics faulted the bill as hastily-drawn, for giving too much control over rail construction to the state's transportation bureaucracy and for failing to ensure that Florida residents will be given first priority for new jobs.  "Not illegal immigrants, not Texans, not green card workers, but Floridians," said Rep. Adam Fetterman, D-Port St. Lucie, an opponent. 

The bill now heads to the 40-member Senate where passage is uncertain. The 14-member Senate Democratic Caucus has scheduled a meeting at noon on Monday to discuss whether to support the bill. Later Monday, the Senate Transportation Committee will take up the bill -- the first of three Senate committees scheduled to analyze the bill in a 24-hour span.

After the vote, the bipartisan opposition cited the timing of the vote and the cost to explain the vote.

"I just don't think right now this is the right deal, especially for my community," said Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami.

Planas said the $13 million to $15 million earmarked for Tri-Rail in South Florida wasn't enough to sway his vote. He worries it will take money from other transportation projects and didn't believe assurances from from lawmakers to the contrary. "The guarantee's not really there," he said.

Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, also listed the vast unknowns of the rail bill as the reason behind his "no" vote.

"This is really kind of a CSX deal and it's been that all the way along," said Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg. "To come up here, to push us in a rush to judgment, and again with not a lot of clarification on data -- how the ridership projections come, how you justify the cost and why now."

Heller said he was concerned that lawmakers didn't guarantee that the project's jobs would go to Floridians. Also, the cost was a nonstarter with his constituents. "The other aspect of that is the cost of the purchase," he said. "It is expensive and it is questionable whether it's the right price. I don't care how many appraisals they got on it. It is still by any other judgment of folks a very costly per mile expenditure."

-- Steve Bousquet and John Frank