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Paula Dockery's train-killing technique: Knowledge

An old lawyer saying goes something like this: If you don't have the facts, pound on the law. If you don't have the law, pound on the facts. If you don't have either, pound on the table.

Lakeland Sen. Paula Dockery didn't need to pound on the table when she pummeled the latest incarnation of SunRail during a Thursday workshop where she managed to peel a vote her way. She not only had the facts and the law on her side, she had the numbers and memory to employ each with aplomb. At times, she flummoxed the senators she squared off against -- Andy Gardiner, Jeremy Ring, and Joe Negron -- who lack either her zeal or her encyclopedic knowledge of all things rail or both. 

Sen. Steve Wise, who backs SunRail, left the workshop early and was almost amazed by Dockery's performance. "She not only has the numbers, but she can remember them," Wise laughed.

Here's a barely edited sample from the workshop, where Dockery first raised questions about the SunRail deal by concentrating first on Tri-Rail's problems:

Dockery: Sen. Ring, how many jobs were created when Tri-Rail went into existence 20 years ago?

Ring: All I can tell you today is direct and indirect jobs. I wasn’t here 20 years ago and I’m not sure what that has to do with the bill.

Dockery: It has everything to do with the bill. You’re talking about creating jobs.

Ring: Yes… Again, it’s 330 jobs today. I can’t tell you about 20 years ago. I wasn’t living in the state of Florida.

Dockery: Sen. Ring how many of those 330 jobs are government jobs?

Gardiner: Sen. Dockery, if you could, through the chair. Sen. Ring I don’t think has completed answering the question

Ring: Mr. Chair, it’s 110 SFRTA employees. There’s 220 contract employees. That was quoted by the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

Dockery: In 2008, Tri-Rail brought in $9 million. What was the operating deficit that local governments needed to make up?

Ring: I believe government needed to make up $46 million. The whole operating impact was $57 million. Mr. Chair I have a question: I would like to know where we’re going with this? Roads cost money as well. Mr. Chair, I just don’t know where we’re going. This is not a quiz. This is not a multiple-choice quiz.

Gardiner: I understand. I understand. Duly noted. Sen. Dockery if we could try to hone in specifically on the legislation. I know the legislation’s pretty clear about the dedicated funding source for Tri-Rail. So if we could keep the questions to that, I think that would be more appropriate.

Dockery: Mr. Chairman, you are selling this bill on creating jobs and economic development. And I’m asking questions to show that our one and only existing rail service not only did not create a lot of jobs but also is operating at a deficit 20 years later with a 15,000 ridership -- whereas the system that you’re trying to build now only has an estimated 3,500 ridership. I think that the members who are going to vote on this legislation and who are going to commit local governments and the state government to pay for this need to know that there is a cost to us and those costs need to be put out on the table. And my objection to this bill is not that I’m objecting to commuter rail – I like commuter rail – I’m objecting to the details of this deal and have made the statement that it needs to be renegotiated to be a better deal. We need this information on the table to get to what is a better deal.

Gardiner: Well, duly noted, Senator. But I would also like to remind you back to Chair Gaetz comments and Sen. Ring’s. It’s not just about the existing jobs for that individual at the commuter rail stop. But it’s about the existing jobs of individuals who use that rail every day. That is a valid discussion point, something we heard very clearly from our colleagues last year from Sen. Deutch, Aronberg and others – that it was imperative we have a dedicated funding source to continue the system. And I think  the bill before us, the additional $15 million does that…. I would just encourage you to stick specifically to the bill.

Dockery: Mr. Chair

Gardiner: Question on the bill?

Dockery: I am sticking to the bill. The fact of the matter is Sen. Ring just said that the operating loss was $40 million. You’re talking about giving them $15 million. I am in favor of helping Tri-Rail stay in existence. But shouldn’t we learn some lessons from our existing system before we go on to a new system? And if we can’t afford the existing system, then why are we going on with a new system? And that is extremely pertinent to this conversation.

Ring: I think we are learning. I think we quite frankly with all due respect we’ve taken a lot of learning. And here we are in year three and we’re much further along…. Tri-Rail is growing. It’s growing ridership regularly. I’m not sure why, quite frankly, we need to create a transportation infrastructure that makes money the way you’re talking about…. Clearly, there’s jobs. Obviously, it’s not going to run without jobs. We know that. But there is a bigger impact and I think these questions are misleading because I don’t think they look at the overall impact of what’s there…. I’m not sure the Brooklyn Bridge made money on the day it opened. I’m not sure it still makes money…

Dockery: Sen. Negron….. If it’s such a good deal, then why don’t we allow the private corporation to indemnify us since they are indeed using our tracks and then we’ll pay for the insurance policy?

Negron:… I guess the answer to the question would be: Since they have an asset that we want, and they own it, and we can’t take it by condemnation or some other mechanism… We want to buy it from them. And in that exchange we’re now going to bring in tens of thousands of people into their rail corridor that otherwise would not be there. So what we’re trying to do is say in some instances, when we make a mistake they will pay. In some instances when they make a mistake, we will pay. But we’re trying to have a shared, no-fault system that takes care of people and makes sure they don’t fall through the cracks.

Dockery: You say we are introducing passengers into their corridor. We are paying them 10 times what their corridor is worth for the honor of owning that corridor. It’s now our corridor. So they’re introducing freight into our passenger-rail corridor. They should be indemnifying us. Not the other way around. So can we restructure this deal where, instead of the taxpayers of the state of Florida indemnifying a for-profit corporation against their fault and negligence, we have them indemnify us -- just like Amtrak does when they use CSX’s freight tracks? And then, as a show of good faith, we’ll pay for that insurance policy, but when it exceeds the insurance policy limits of $200 million, it will be them and not the state of Florida that’s on the hook.

Negron: It’s a good point with this exception: I would say that, in some cases, CSX is paying for and will pay for negligent acts that are committed by the state of Florida. So I think it is a shared event. As an example I would give you: If one of our signal-crossers who’s our employee makes a mistake and as a result someone is killed in a grate-crossing, the freight pays it because the freight is the one that is actually involved in the accident…. Let me just mention this, under federal law we would be required to let them come through anyway. You can’t stop freight moving around the United States of America. There are federal laws requirements of allowing the access of freight. So I don’t think that’s a viable option. Since they own it and we need it, this is the agreement… All things being considered, it’s not a one-way street and it’s a fair arrangement.

Dockery: I’m so happy that you brought up federal law stating that we have to let freight operate. Because actually federal law also states that they have to let passenger (rail) operate. So, in essence, we do not need to even purchase the track in the first place. We just need to add the capacity for passenger rail to be able to share that track and the $615 million that would be partly new starts funding in addition to the $641 million that we’re paying CSX for their track – we could save $641 million totally. CSX could continue to own the track. We could lease the track from them after we make the capacity improvements. They would still own the tracks. And then it would make sense for us to indemnify them since they would be the owner. So why are we costing the taxpayers $641 million when we don’t need to buy the track in the first place?

Negron: Any proposed business arrangement has its pros and cons. If you believe or if any member of the Senate believes that this is not a good deal for taxpayers, then they should not support it. The State of Florida is making a decision that is better for us to own operate and maintain the system. That’s the decision that is going to be made. It is safer for our constituents and for our visitors to Florida if we own and operate and maintain the system….