In a letter to legislators Thursday, Sen. Paula Dockery sent her colleagues a great big "I told you so,'' about their rush to approve the CSX/Sunrail deal. They failed to first clear up issues Amtrak had with the Florida Department of Transportation last fall, and that's led to the delay.
"Now, ten months later, at the end of August 2010, the $641 million taxpayer-funded purchase of 61.5 miles of track from CSX has not been completed because the concerns that were brought to FDOT’s attention last November have still not been resolved,'' Dockery wrote in her scolding letter. She lambasted local Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and other officials who wrote off the Amtrak concerns as "no big deal." Download Amtrak November 2009 letter
"I’d say that Amtrak’s concern was a “big deal” and that the tens of thousands of dollars spent on the Special Session is just another example of government waste, as this issue could have been dealt with during the regular 2010 Session, at no additional cost to the citizens of the State of Florida,'' she wrote. Download Amtrak Letter 2-22-10
The Orlando Sentinel wrote about the Amtrak-prompted delay on Thursday and quoted Orlando Sen. Andy Gardiner as saying the Legislature may have to step in to resolve the stand off that is stalling the first phase of the project. More fodder for another Dockery "told you so."
Here's Dockery's letter to lawmakers:
I am attaching an article from yesterday’s Orlando Sentinel for your review.
Some background on this issue:
In an email sent on November 30, 2009, Amtrak notified the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and a select group of legislators that there were serious issues with regard to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Amtrak and FDOT that if left unresolved, could affect the state’s ability to purchase the tracks for the SunRail project.
Although it was clear that this was a very serious blow to the SunRail project, elected officials such as Mayor Buddy Dyer and Congressman John Mica from the Orlando area essentially said that it was “no big deal.”
These same leaders stressed that the SunRail project would not result in new taxes, and it is now evident that there will most certainly be tax increases to cover the costs associated with this commuter/freight rail system (see “SunRail commuter train, Lynx buses will require tax, officials say” http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/os-lynx-sunrail-money-tax-20100515,0,7632160.story).
On the same date that Amtrak notified FDOT of these concerns, legislative leaders called us into a December Special Session for the sole purpose of giving CSX immunity from liability so FDOT could close on the purchase of the tracks for the CSX/SunRail project. Despite their knowledge of this issue, it was not included in the bill that was dropped on us after the start of session.
On February 22, 2010, after multiple communications from Amtrak to FDOT, Amtrak terminated the MOU. The corresponding letter stated that it was because FDOT “has failed to provide Amtrak any communication that FDOT has recognized or tried to address the legitimate business concerns that Amtrak and FDOT jointly discussed…”.
I’d say that Amtrak’s concern was a “big deal” and that the tens of thousands of dollars spent on the Special Session is just another example of government waste, as this issue could have been dealt with during the regular 2010 Session, at no additional cost to the citizens of the State of Florida.
Amtrak face-off with state imperils SunRail
By Dan Tracy, Orlando Sentinel
7:08 PM EDT, August 18, 2010
A months-long disagreement between Florida and Amtrak over insurance has delayed one of the most critical steps to creating the SunRail commuter train: the $150 million purchase of the tracks.
If the impasse continues much longer, it could derail the summer 2013 debut of the most expensive and ambitious mass-transit project in Central Florida's history.
"It's getting close [to another postponement] if something doesn't break pretty soon," said Todd Hammerle, SunRail project manager for the state Department of Transportation.
Added Hammerle, who is not involved in the talks with Amtrak, "I'm just sitting here on pins and needles."
Negotiations are being conducted between FDOT officials in Tallahassee and Amtrak executives in Washington. Both sides are saying little about what is going on.
Dick Kane, FDOT's spokesman in Tallahassee, said talks are ongoing but would not discuss specifics.
Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm issued a written statement saying "no substantive progress has been made in resolving the liability issue between Amtrak and the Florida Department of Transportation."
Because of federal rules, the state needs an agreement with Amtrak before it can buy the tracks, owned by CSX of Jacksonville. The state wants a 61-mile section that runs from DeLand in Volusia County, through downtown Orlando to Poinciana in Osceola County.
Amtrak is seeking a better deal than the state is offering in case there is an accident between its trains and SunRail, both of which would run on the tracks that Florida intends to buy from CSX.
The state wants Amtrak to handle costs associated with injuries or deaths to their passengers and employees if one of its trains collides with a SunRail or CSX freight train. CSX and SunRail would cover their costs.
Amtrak, however, is asking the state to shield it from some potential lawsuits and claims, which is the same arrangement the Legislature approved between the state and CSX in January.
FDOT officials have argued Amtrak is being unfair because it is asking for more protection than it has now in South Florida, where it has shared state-owned tracks with the Tri-Rail commuter train for more than 20 years.
Amtrak, which began publicly complaining about liability in January, has countered that it should not be bound by deals made by its previous leaders.
Estimated to cost $1.2 billion, SunRail has suffered lengthy postponements before, losing almost two years because the Florida Legislature twice balked at approving the venture. It finally passed during a January special session.
State Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who was instrumental in getting SunRail approved, said the Legislature might have to step in and craft a deal, though no one from FDOT has asked for help yet.
"You don't want to take anything for granted, but we're open to it," Gardiner said.
SunRail expects to have five sets of trains running along its corridor, if and when it starts operations. Each train would feature a locomotive, coach and cab car, though they can be expanded to meet passenger demands.
About six Amtrak passenger and 20 freight trains usually roll through Central Florida daily. Some of the freight traffic will be rerouted because of SunRail.
Though the track sale remains in limbo, FDOT is trying to move ahead on other fronts. For instance, it is close to buying seven diesel-powered locomotives for $18 million from Motive Power, a manufacturer based in Boise, Idaho. The agency also is talking with the Canadian company Bombardier to buy four double-decker coaches and nine cab cars for $30 million.
Those deals were supposed to have been completed by now but have been slowed as FDOT waits for some approvals from the federal government. It is unclear whether the Amtrak talks are affecting that paperwork.
Dan Tracy can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5444.