Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Florida legislature approves landmark rail bill

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In a special session devoted to passenger rail matters, Florida legislators have approved a far-ranging statewide passenger rail program. The state Senate approved the measure 27-10 late Tuesday after a labor protection deal was worked out with the AFL-CIO. The bill went to the governor on Wednesday for his promised signature.

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The bill sets in motion a high speed rail initiative that its backers hope will help bring $2.6 billion in federal finding into the state. Of more immediate importance, it clears the way for the state to pay CSX Corp. $432 million for 61.5 miles of line in central Florida to accommodate the long-planned SunRail regional/commuter rail system. The measure removes a major barrier to such a system by providing indemnity to CSX for any accidents involving commuter operations.

The measure provides new annual funding of up to $15 million (in addition to the current $27 million) for operating assistance for the immensely successful but fiscally ailing Tri-Rail regional line linking Miami and Palm Beach.

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The prospects of tapping some of the $8 billion in high speed rail stimulus funding provided impetus of the special section. Sources said federal officials had made it clear that Florida needed to show a firmer commitment to passenger rail than it has in the past.

To underscore the commitment, the new program creates two state entities to plan and coordinate passenger rail throughout the state.

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CSX Corp. called the rail plan “an important step toward fully leveraging the efficient and environmentally friendly benefits of rail. This investment will have tremendous benefits for Florida's economy by creating jobs and increasing the state’s economic competitiveness by moving both passengers and freight more effectively. CSX will continue to work with Florida’s elected leaders to support the recovery of our state’s economy and its future growth.”