Gaming Out the CSX Deal’s Rerouting Language

Following last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Lakeland-specific rerouting language now exists in both the House and Senate bills authorizing the CSX deal. But the Senate language is far less sweeping in its time frames and goals than the House language. Even so, Lakeland City Manager Doug Thomas told me via email that the watered down Senate language is good enough, and the city is “…’positioned’ to support the initiative w/ approval of the subject amendments legislatively.” Obviously, that statement leaves a lot of ambiguity, probably because uncertainty continues to surround what’s going to happen. Issue number one is that a key senator, Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, says even the watered down Senate version will be DOA in his committee next week.

I’ve provided a side-by-side comparison of the House and Senate language. And I’ll game out the likely scenarios as I see them.

Senate language (link not available):

“Following the completion of the department’s alternative rail traffic evaluation, the department shall begin a project development and environmental study that must be reviewed and approved by appropriate federal agencies so that a preferred alternative can be identified which minimizes the impacts associated with freight rail movements along the corridor. This preferred alternative shall become the basis for future development of this freight rail corridor and shall be prioritized for funding in the department’s work program no later than 10 years from commencement of construction of the CSX Integrated Logistics Center…”

House language:

“…Work with the impacted local governments and CSX Transportation Company to identify and develop an alternative route for through rail traffic destined for the CSX Integrated Logistics Center in Winter Haven. As soon as possible following the completion of the department’s alternative rail traffic evaluation, the department shall begin a project development and environmental study of the preferred alternative such that the negative impacts of commuter rail programs, and intercity rail transportation system projects funded by the state, will be eliminated not later than eight years after commuter rail programs and intercity rail transportation system projects begin operation…”

Fasano said rather bluntly that even the watered down Senate Lakeland language is “way out of bounds” and will come out when his transportation appropriations committee meets next week. Fasano’s reaction illustrates pretty nicely why I and many others think the state will remove or simply ignore any Lakeland-specific rerouting language after CSX and Orlando get their deal. And honestly, from legislators point-of-view, it’s hard to blame them. As I’ve described before, if you accept DOT’s exorbitant cost projections, the Lakeland/west Central Florida rerouting amounts to a $1.2 billion poison bill. It immediately doubles the cost of the entire deal. From a purely provincial standpoint, why would some senator in the Panhandle or south Florida, circa 2012, vote to commit that kind of money to a rerouting that doesn’t really impact them and doesn’t have a hugely powerful constituency behind it? And from a bigger picture view, this entire process – and I’m talking about the entire deal now – is a terrible way to make transportation policy with longterm implications.

Said Fasano:

“You’re going to have other members in both chambers saying, ‘If we’re doing it for Lakeland, if we’re doing it there, then we ought to do it in this district or that district,'” Fasano said.

Uhhh, yep.

Considering all this, what’s likely to happen in the rest of the session? If senators were free to vote their consciences on this deal, I think it would blow up faster than Jim Cramer’s credibility. However, the legislature, like the military, exists to preserve democracy, not practice it. Enormous coercive political and lobbying power is being brought to bear on this deal. And that may prove enough to jam it through. It’s going to be a very close call, with the determining factor probably the relative power of the budget politics and the specter of trail lawyer and union-funded attack ads come 2010. (Yes, I know the trial lawyers are not actively opposing the bill this time, but do you think they would refrain from using a “so-and-so voted for CSX when we were laying off teachers” if they thought it would work during an election?)

As for the Lakeland language, here are my takes on how the Lakeland language plays out next week:

1) Most likely, I think, is that some further watered down rerouting language will emerge as a rhetorical compromise. The bill survives Fasano’s committee and moves on with Lakeland city government’s tacit support, which is actually quite irrelevant to the deal’s fate beyond allowing supporters to try to undermine Paula Dockery’s opposition efforts. In reconciling the bill with the House, negotiators would eventually choose the weaker Senate language.

2) Somewhat less likely is that the city convinces Fasano to leave the Senate language as it is, and the deal eventually faces the music with the Senate’s Lakeland provision intact. The key consideration here is whether senators would consider the rerouting language a true commitment, and thus a $1.2 billion poison pill, or if they would consider it a wink-wink, nudge-nudge placeholder that can be disposed of later with no consequences. I think, when push came to shove, the wink-wink characerization is far more likely.

3) Even less likely, Fasano’s committee could remove the Lakeland language entirely and push the bill forward with no Lakeland/west Central Florida consideration. That would actually be the most honest approach supporters of the deal could take, which is why I think it won’t happen.

4) The best, and thus least likely option, is that the bill dies in Fasano’s committee because of its myriad flaws.

In any case, I think the rather forceful “eliminated” in 8 years language from the House is toast. Once the city tacitly agreed to the weaker Senate language, it removed all incentive for anyone to adopt the tougher House language.

None of this means the city is necessarily wrong to do what it’s doing. I think officials are working hard to play the game as it confronts them and protect the city’s interests as they perceive them. The problem, as I see it, is that this is a rigged game and has been from the start.

However, all of this activity has drummed up the outlines of a decent I-4 corridor deal, focused on the Van Fleet Trail. The key, of course, is that Winter Haven seems not to object to having the excess freight jammed down into the heart of its downtown. That seems to be a trade the city is willing to make for the ILC. Please correct me if I’m inferring too much from Haven’s silence concerning the Van Fleet Trail option.

If the legislature blows up this deal, I think a legitimate possibility exists of creating a new deal, which must be backed by some kind of state mass transit tax/funding source, that incorporates Amtrak and regional transit authorities, accomodates CSX’s needs fairly, and sets us all on a much better transit path.