Hey Orlando, Get Your Act Together, Like Tampa, and Pay for Your Own Rail

You may have seen that U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood supposedly said recently that Florida won’t get high speed rail money unless the state senate agrees to CSX’s blackmail payment, eerrr, Sunrail deal.

I say supposedly because this entire muddled Sentinel story by the usually reliable Dan Tracy contains exactly two quotes from Lahood.

Key passage:

“You’ve got to get your act together,” LaHood told the Orlando Sentinel about the Senate, which twice has failed to approve SunRail.

“If they don’t,” he said moments later to a Florida official, “there’s going to be a lot of disappointed people.”

I’m no pronoun expert, but how is it that “you” in an interview with the Sentinel stands for “Florida Senate?” Dan? Little help? And by the way, how is it any story about this deal can fail to use the letters “CSX” and words “record per mile cost?” Dan? Come on, you’re better than that.

I suspect that Lahood does not intimately know the politics and intricacies of the CSX freight realignment/Sunrail deal and is simply pushing for as many transit deals as possible across the country. But even if that’s not true, and he’s inarticulately but honestly pushing for CSX/Sunrail, there’s a good way for the Orlando folks to get their act together and make it easier for the Florida Senate to support them.

They should take a page from the responsible transit plan backed by government officials over in Tampa Bay. They are actually trying to get their citizens to tax themselves to kick start a reasonable light rail system. By contrast, Orlando’s rail boosters want to tax everybody else but themselves and then benefit from the station development rights and Winter Haven CSX hub land value spikes and freight access. Why do you think arch right-winger Sen. JD Alexander, R-Phoenix Industries, traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for Sunrail? Because he loves public transit? Hippy, leftist, tax-funded public transit? Probably has a little bit more to do with all the personal interests he has in the relocation deal.

If Orlando leaders were really serious about this deal, they’d convince their citizens to at least somewhat pay their own way. If they had done that, then they could whine about the state not picking up the rest of the tab for a lousy sprawl-inducing commuter rail system that a handful of people will ride.

As for CSX’s Sunrail realignment wagging the High Speed Rail dog, give me a break. One has nothing to do with the other, except for John Mica, R-Future CSX Board Member. (Hey Dan, how about asking Mica if he’ll rule out taking a pay check from CSX in the future.)

But future gubernatorial candidate Paula Dockery makes that point much more elegantly than I can in this email she sent out a couple of days ago:

β€œIn light of all the carefully scripted and manufactured news that has unfolded in the past two weeks, I want to respond to the double-talk of using stimulus funds as an excuse by otherwise very conservative elected officials and special development interests to secure passage of the bad deal that is SunRail.

The reality is that the individuals who are now advocating that Sunrail is critical for the opportunity to get High Speed Rail (HSR) funds are some of the same individuals who fought to kill HSR years ago. In fact, if HSR had been properly funded then, we would have a more vibrant public transit system in our state that would have already created the many jobs and infrastructure that could have helped stem some of the economic damage we are experiencing today.

The folks in DC are highlighting that Florida has been irresponsible in failing to establish dedicated funding that ensures the longevity of commuter rail in Florida in the form of Tri-Rail. Now, SunRail proponents have waged a public relations campaign that attempts to mask the irresponsible SunRail deal as the only means for Florida to receive federal funding for HSR.

They are trying to hitch their wagon to the fate of Florida’s one true HSR Project that is very competitive for the $8 billion pot of Federal Stimulus funds. The SunRail project has applied for $270 million in HSR funds that by definition it does not qualify for. The 70-page Federal guidance specifically states on page 28 that Commuter Rail Projects are ineligible for HSR Funds. Please do not be fooled by the proponents of SunRail because it is clear that commuter rail funding is ineligible for HSR funds; the money will never come.

Passage of Sunrail in its current form – without a dedicated funding source for its operation and without real funding for its capital improvements – will render the real $2.5 billion in HSR funding even less likely when we are competing with states like California that have a demonstrated historical commitment to public transit rail projects.

The fact remains that it is the reckless failure of the legislature and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to provide for Tri-Rail that is creating an emergency in Florida. It is not the failure to pass the terrible deal that is Sunrail.

If SunRail is to move forward, it should be done on its own merits and not through a selfish attempt to tie its fate to Tri-Rail or to the Tampa-Orlando-Miami HSR Application. Renegotiation of the bad terms of this Sunrail deal to make it a good deal is critical to its success. The taxpayers deserve to be protected and FDOT has a lot of explaining to do.

We need to call out the inaccuracies and hypocrisy of holding hostage Tri-Rail and HSR money to force through a terrible boondoggle in terms of the deal that is Sunrail. We need to make SunRail contingent on the renegotiation of the price and the transfer of liability.

This doesn’t need to be as confusing as the powerful forces are making it. Three independent rail projects all need to stand on their own and be properly vetted. Their fates are not tied and shouldn’t be. That is a trick used to force a bad deal that wouldn’t pass on its own into a deal that has broad support. The current deal for Orlando commuter rail (SunRail) should not hold hostage the opportunity to deliver HSR for all Floridians.”