I guess you mostly have to feel sorry for Lakeland city government officials, who apparently have worked hard behind the scenes with Florida’s Department of Transportation and Orlando-area legislators to get language calling, without qualification, for the elimination of CSX deal freight traffic within 8 years into the legislation authorizing the deal. The only way to eliminate such traffic, short of a magic wand, is to reroute it out of the downtown core. This would have benefits for Tampa Bay by moving some freight off of the east-west line linking Tampa and Orlando through Lakeland. City officials, as I understand it, have been counting on regional help from Bay area power players to cut a deal to this effect.
Put aside for a second whether such statuatory language would have any meaning – I don’t think it would -and just consider the question of including it and mandating a rerouting around Lakeland’s core. On that question, the city suffered two big setbacks in recent days.
The first came last week with the unveiling of preliminary cost estimates for potential alternate freight routes. As City Commissioner Gow Fields pointed out in his interview with Chuck a few days ago, the only real logistical and political possibility for rerouting is to use the former rail line-turned-Van Fleet Trail between Wildwood and Polk City. However, DOT’s study of alternate routes pegged the Van Fleet option at $1.2 billion, easily the most expensive of the would-be alternatives studied. $1.2 billion is DOT-speak for “not gonna happen.” There has been grumbling that DOT went out of its way to drive up the final number, including unnecessary costs in its study.
I asked Fields about that last night, and he just said, “They didn’t lowball us.” City Manager Doug Thomas, who along with Fields has spearheaded Lakeland’s approach to the deal, called the costs “staggering” during last week’s meeting.
Fast forward to yesterday. During a Senate Transportation Committee meeting, Sen. Paula Dockery called Orlando’s bluff on the Lakeland language by suggesting an amendment to Sen. Lee Constantine’s rail deal legislation that simply would have adopted the unequivocal rerouting language already adopted by the House. Keep in mind, Constantine is the Orlando-area legislator the city has been negotiating with all this time over this very language. So when push came to shove, what was his answer? Nope.
He said the language amounts to a blank check, and he can’t support it. Honestly, given the massive price tag ginned up by DOT, it’s hard to blame Constantine. Though blank checks for this deal haven’t seemed to bother him or other supporters until now.
The committee’s rejection of Dockery’s amendment set off some rather pathetic dissembling by Constantine, which I happened to watch on replay last night. He said first that he’s been in negotiations with Lakeland officials and that they are happy with the current rerouting language, which is full of weasel words like “if practicable” or “if feasible.” Then he said, despite Lakeland’s happiness with the language, that he would have new language that Lakeland would be happy with by the time the bill reached the Senate floor. He didn’t say what it was. Then he said he would have the new language before it reached the floor so senators could review it. Then he again said Lakeland was happy with all of those things. Then he said trust me, I’ll take care of Lakeland. I promise. And you know I get things done and do what I say, etc., etc. Or something very close to that. I didn’t write it down.
All in all, it left Constantine’s position harder to unravel than AIG’s balance sheet.
When I talked to Fields last night, he wasn’t certain of exactly what happened at the committee meeting. But he made it clear that city government would oppose the deal if the language equivocated, as it currently does. The city is not happy with Constantine’s current language. Period. Fields also said that unveiling new language on the floor was not the agreement the city thought it had with Constantine.
Objective observers might conclude that such a state of events – grossly expensive rerouting and dissembling senators – indicates the state and the Orlando cabal have no intention whatsoever to help Lakeland. It might suggest that they’ve been using the city to try to string things out and isolate Dockery. This is how good faith is rewarded when you’re dealing with people acting in bad faith. And thankfully, Sen. Dockery put that on display for everyone yesterday.