December 10, 2009

Crist requests high-speed rail cash from LaHood

Gov. Charlie Crist sent U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood a letter formally requesting federal stimulus bucks for a bullet train from Orlando to Tampa.

In the letter, Crist touts the overwhelming passage of the SunRail/TriRail/High speed rail bill on Tuesday.

"The transportation bill passed this week resoundingly demonstrates Florida’s support for passenger rail transportation," Crist writes. "As a result, the Sunshine State will reduce congestion on our roadways and create more efficient travel options for our residents and visitors."

Read the full letter below

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FDOT to Sen. Paula Dockery: The software ate your public info

Sen. Paula Dockery just wanted to see eight-month's worth of emails issues to and from FDOT honchos about "CSX, rail, liability."** The Lakeland Republican barely got a thing. There was not one email from FDOT chief Stephanie Kopelousos over the past eight months on an issue that her boss, Gov. Charlie Crist, and the Legislature felt could put people to work and transform the economy.

Is that believable she was asked Dec. 3. “I’m sure that we gave her every document that we have and every email.”

Wrong on two counts.

1) The agency's general counsel, Robert M. Burdick, just wrote Dockery with ye olde computin' explanation about a snafu: "the (software) program did not function as intended." Indeed. The agency just delivered a 8,037 emails with the apology letter.

2) The emails aren't everything. The secretary and other FDOT officials appear to be conducting public work with private email accounts. But those email accounts haven't been mind. So the secretary either forgot she does this or decided not to review her personal email for some other reason.

3) In some emails, Kopelousos and others appear to use breakfast food names, like "pancakes," to hide the fact they're talking about rail.

It'll take a while to go through it all to see if any information (about federal money, costs, financing or liability) could have affected the session that ended with a surprisingly easy 27-10 vote in the Senate.

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December 09, 2009

How Jeff Atwater saved rail: Yelling at FDOT

The most affable man in the Florida Senate wasn’t so smiley.

Senate President Jeff Atwater had taken too much of a gamble, calling a special session on controversial rail transit issues without enough votes to ensure passage. And with the clock running down, he needed the Florida Department of Transportation Secretary, Stephanie Kopelousos, to give a little something – some job protection language to the AFL CIO – so that the union dropped its opposition and thereby freed up Democrats to vote on the package.

Standing in the room with the Republican president, Democratic leader Al Lawson was stunned by Atwater’s passion. And his anger.

 “It was so critical and it was coming down to whether or not he would have the votes. And FDOT was not responding. And I have never seen him (Atwater) get so frustrated. He really called the secretary on the carpet, really lashed out at her,” Lawson said.

“You will do this!” Atwater said on the phone to Kopelousos, according to Lawson. “You have slowed this process down. We are at the 11th hour and you‘ve got to do something. We are this close.”

“What are you trying to do to me? I’ve given everything I had on this. Day and night. I haven’t been sleeping. And you are screwing me around.”

Kopelousos apologized. “That wasn’t my intent Mr. President,” she said.

“If it wasn’t your damn intent, then you need to move from where you are,” Atwater said, according to Lawson. “We are an hour and a half away from going into session and if you don’t do something I’m going to lose this whole deal.”

That’s what it took. The secretary budged. The union saved a few jobs and some major face. And the bill passed.

The letter that allowed the rail deal

In the end, billions of hoped-for federal money to build a high-speed rail, and hundreds of millions more for Central and South Florida commuter rail hinged on just one letter from Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos to Senate President Jeff Atwater. The letter gives the AFL-CIO some sense of job security for its rail signalmen. The union dropped its objections and that meant more Democrats could vote for the bill.

Download DOC120909

Nelson: Congress gives Florida transportation $$$

Bill Nelson's office say commuter rail in Florida has gotten a second big boost -- congressional budget negotiators late last night agreed to spend $40 million to help jumpstart a rail system that will serve
commuters in Central Florida. 

There's also $1.7 million for planning for light rail in Tampa and $4 million for expansion of Metrorail in Miami. The expenditures – approved by budget negotiators for the House and Senate – come on the heels of the Florida Legislature’s passage of the rail bill.

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December 08, 2009

From DC, cheers for passage of rail bill

New Sen. George LeMieux says " the Florida Legislature put the interests of Floridians first by supporting
commuter rail in Central and South Florida.

"With support for rail from the state, Florida’s chances of winning federal high-speed rail money greatly
improve," LeMieux says in a statement. "A high-speed rail corridor will put Floridians to work, it will drive economic development and create new mega-corridors of activity beneficial to our state."

Rep. Kendrick Meek, who is running for the seat LeMieux now holds, called it a "vote for the figure of Florida.

For years, we have discussed the possibility of developing commuter and high speed rail to create thousands of high-quality jobs and move toward a clean energy future," Meek said. "Today we move from words to action."

AFL-CIO: 184 union jobs saved

AFL-CIO president Mike Williams didn't quite say it, but the deal that's been struck in the Senate protects 184 union railroad workers in South and Central Florida. The signalmen and maintenance-of-way workers will continue to enjoy federal pension benefits and federal job-protection benefits.

Getting the union on board not only helps draw Democratic votes in the Legislature, it can be used in the halls of a Democratic Congress to help Florida win federal money for bullet trains.

The big question: is the agreement to save union jobs a deal with the executive and therefore will the bill simply pass out of the Senate? Seems so now. But the Senate just rolled the bill to third and there's no amendment for labor in sight.

Here's Williams' statement:

“The Florida AFL-CIO has achieved compromise with the Florida Department of Transportation and South Florida Regional Transportation Authority regarding HB 1B that addresses our serious objections and concerns voiced at the start of special session concerning job preservation and passenger safety on Florida’s railways. After long negotiations and discussions with Senate leadership and Senate Democrats, the primary concern of the Florida AFL-CIO, the preservation of the existing high quality rail jobs.  Our goal of stopping the displacement of federally-qualified railroad workers from Florida’s passenger and freight railroads will not be compromised as experienced rail workers will continue to maintain Florida’s railways.”

Unions deliver the bad news to Dockery: SunRail deal

Mike Williams, president of the AFL-CIO, just left Sen. Paula Dockery's office after delivering a bombshell: They're about to reach an accord on union workers at SunRail. So Democrats in the Senate might vote for the rail bill.

That means they can roll it over to third reading and pas it out of the chamber.

Is the session over?

Not necessarily. There's resistance to the deal in the House. So even if the Senate passes the legislation, it won't look like the House version and leaders will meet in conference. Some House Republicans are no fans of the unions, or the fact that the Senate might change the agreement heading into the session. The House had rejected union language last month before the session was called.

"While things are open to negotiation in a session, we had a deal," Rep. Carlos Lopez Cantera, the Republican whip, said yesterday when we asked about the emerging union deal. "And a deal's, a deal is a deal."

JD Alexander: No 'ridiculous' conflict here.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander said he'll vote on the SunRail deal despite the fact that his cousin, Rep. Baxter Troutman, abstained from voting on the grounds that it's a conflict of interest because their family owns a business that works on the CSX lines.

Alexander based his decision on a Senate general counsel Jason Vail's letter that said "Short answer: No conflict of interest" exists because the family business, Phoenix Industries, doesn't stand to realize a "special gain." The whole document is on the link below**

Yesterday, when we asked about whether his family business purchased Phoenix amid the CSX deal to profit from it, Alexander called the question "speculative" and "ridiculous." We based the question, in part, on information from this Lakeland blog article detailing an apparent tie between SunRail and the Heartland Parkway that Alexander pushed for.

“I asked for a Senate general counsel opinion and the opinion, once again, came back that I have no conflict on voting on the rail issue. With the opinion clearly stating that I have no conflict, I am constitutionally bound to vote. I will not ignore my duty as an elected official simply because some may wish to sideline my vote on an important issue for Florida’s future. I have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of my constituents and to work to create an environment that provides them with the jobs and opportunities to be successful.”

Lots of family intrigue here.

**Download Sgcopinion09_00001