CSX Deal And Diplomacy

Here’s the most important thing written about the CSX/Orlando freight dump deal written in quite a while:

“We still don’t have the votes yet,” said Sen. Lee Constantine, R- Altamonte Springs, who chairs the powerful Judiciary Committee, adding that he knows several senators who have found other reasons to oppose the bill now that trial lawyers weren’t fighting it.

This came from the Orlando Sentinel’s story reporting that the Trial Lawyers have decided to remain neutral in this year’s scrum over the deal. Honestly, I would have thought that the lawyers pulling out would have been a pretty big nail in our coffin over here. And yet, that does not appear to be the case.

We seem to still have a fighting chance. So email or call Senate President Jeff Atwater and ask him to do the right thing by Florida and Lakeland: atwater.jeff.web@flsenate.gov, (850) 487-5100

It would be nice if the full Lakeland City Commission wanted to go to the barricades with the rest of us, but that’s really not its nature. In the 10 years I’ve watched Lakeland government, the overarching value of the City Commission has been to avoid public confrontation. That helps with stability and allows technocrats to do their jobs more freely than they might within a more freewheeling political culture. (See the Polk County Planning Department) But it also breeds pacifity, which might explain why city government has gotten worked by David Greene, JD Alexander, and the Orlando cabal – a bunch of guys who are not passive – on this and other issues. This instinct to accomodate was on display in Rick Rousos’ big Sunday story in which a series of city commissioners explain why they’re reluctant to criticize the deal in a political context. This isn’t so much a position as a temperament, and it’s been consistent throughout. So there’s really very little new here.

Half of Rick’s story was a solid rundown of the state of the deal. And I was particularly heartened with how unequivocally Rick wrote this: “Essentially, Lakeland would get freight train traffic that Orlando is trying to ditch.” It shows how much the idea that one region is actively harming another is really sinking in and becoming conventional wisdom. The other half was the city commission discussion. It was about what you would expect. My favorite part came in this passage quoting Commissioner Edie Yates:

Lakeland City Commissioner Edie Yates said she thinks that’s the right approach. She said Lakeland needs to be a decent family member, not an out-of-control outcast who’s not welcome at the table in conversations with others.

“It has to be done diplomatically,” Yates said. “Let’s do it right, and let’s get partners to help us.”

I don’t know if the decent family member, out-of-control outcast thing is Rick’s phrasing or hers. But it’s pretty amusing either way. When we were a decent family member, circa 2005-07, we weren’t welcome at the table. In fact, people rewarded our decency by making sure not to tell us there was a table. It was only after the out-of-control outcasts – otherwise known as citizens, constituents, and Paula Dockery – successfully bought time in 2008 that our FDOT and regional family ever bothered to pretend to ask us to the table, wherever that may be located. I haven’t seen it.

With respect, I think Edie’s been listening to Dick Cheney too much. “Diplomacy” does not equal “be nice to people and hope they return the favor.” Diplomacy is the art of using politics, pressure, and leverage in the service of your particular interests. The only leverage we have, the only pressure we can bring, is this plan’s lack of existence. Once that’s gone, so is the family table, or so I see it.

Even if I’m wrong, it’s not clear to me why some city commissioners think it’s harmful for the out-of-control outcasts to keep up the pressure. The worst thing that happens is we lose, and the decent family members get to say to the powers-that-be: “We didn’t fight you with everything we had. We were reasonable and worked through the process and didn’t sue to stop your project because you said you were going to do…something.” Edie and Gow and the rest benefit in comparison to us. And maybe that will help as a backup.

However, when considering whether the City Commission’s charm offensive stands to work if the deal goes through, I would just note this: City officials, despite their diplomatic skills, haven’t even been able to convince Polk County to join the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority.

Are they really going to be able to convince enough state legislators to drop millions more on freight rerouting around Lakeland?

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