It's the middle of March here in Florida. That means three things are going on: Spring Break, Spring Training Baseball and the Florida Legislature is in session. Spring Training Baseball has a long and honored tradition here. Spring Break, with all its warts, also has been responsible for a lifetime of fond feelings for Florida from people all over the country. Regular sessions of the Florida Legislature, on the other hand, usually make us glad they only meet for 60 days a year. As the old saw goes, when the legislature is in session, make sure you've got your hand on your wallet.
This year is a particularly tough yearfor the Florida Legislature. After failing to actually provide for meaningful property insurance and property tax reform last year, this year they are facing an enormous budget crisis.
So, while talks of budget cuts dominate the agenda, there is another huge battle for Florida's future going on largely in the background. This is a battle over whether Florida will actually move forward with 21st Century smart economic growth initiatives that feature environmentally sound growth management principles, or whether we will continue to follow the old, tired trends that have resulted in the unchecked urban sprawl that has made for fertile ground for the Hometown Democracy initiative. This is a battle that is only lacking the sex angle to put it right up there with Sunshine State as a great candidate for a thought provoking film.
The battle is over whether or not Orlando and Central Florida will finally get a commuter rail project after a 10 year effort. On one side, you have the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), the federal government and local officials in four central Florida counties and the City of Orlando, who have been working together in a model of intergovernmental cooperation. On the other side you have the forces of evil and ego.
The focus of the battle is ostensibly over the $491 million the FDOT has set aside to fund the state portion of the transaction. The deal includes the transfer of 61 miles of rail freight corridor running though east central Florida from CSX Railroad. It also includes CSX building a new Integrated Logistics Center in Winter Haven. The final piece of the deal is the refurbishment of a CSX line further to the west that will pick up the rail freight shifted off the eastern line to allow for the commuter rail project.
The state portion of the funding deal was negotiated with CSX while Jeb Bush was still governor. This is the same Jeb Bush who led the charge to get the bullet train proposal repealed from the Florida Constitution. This is where the forces of ego enter. The main proponent of the bullet train initiative was C.C. "Doc" Dockery of Lakeland. Dockery is married to State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, an opponent of the Orlando commuter rail project and the CSX proposal.
Sen. Dockery is using the idea that more freight traffic will be moving through downtown Lakeland as a result of Orlando getting commuter rail to try to kill the deal that Jeb made with CSX . In the process, she is putting her small minded ego ahead of the environment, the economy and the future of Florida so she can extract her revenge against Jeb.
The vehicle for this revenge killing of the central Florida commuter rail deal isS1666 This is a bill to codify an arrangement for liability coverage on the CSX line in the event of an accident on the commuter rail. All kinds of hysteria has been worked up about this arrangement. Really, though, this is merely a process issue that the lawyers will eventually figure out.
Waiting in the wings are the forces of evil, um, er, the road builders and their legislative lackeys. There have already been legislative grumblings about the cost of the deal, with suggestions that in this tight budget year, the money would be better spent on roads. If this kind of thinking is successful in killing the central Florida commuter rail project, it will become even more difficult for the Tampa Bay area to move forward with their commuter rail efforts.
And there you have it. The forces of evil and the forces of ego coming together in an attempt to kill commuter rail in central Florida. Because if you are always building roads, you'll never get rail.