Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Special session likely for SunRail in December

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The SunRail commuter train that would serve Central Florida likely will get a third shot at approval from the Legislature in December, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

sunrail.jpgGov. Charlie Crist joined Senate President Jeff Atwater, R- North Palm Beach, in calling for a special session in Tallahassee Dec. 7-11 to approve SunRail and prop up the Tri-Rail commuter train in South Florida. SunRail has been defeated twice in the Senate, most recently in April during the regular session. Proponents are hopeful of victory this time.

"This is our best chance. We've got to get it," said Sen. Lee Constantine, R- Altamonte Springs, who has led local delegation efforts for the $1.2 billion project.

Triggering the optimism is the repeated warnings of federal officials - voiced again Oct. 19 - that Florida's application for nearly $2.6 billion in stimulus money to build a high-speed train between Orlando and Tampa is contingent on getting SunRail up and running and improving Tri-Rail's finances.

Atwater and two other state senators personally got the word during a visit to Washington, where they met with federal transit officials and Florida Sens. George LeMieux and Bill Nelson.

"Shame on us if we don't take advantage of this historic opportunity," LeMieux said. "The federal government is ready to invest billions of dollars, but they need a firm and long-term commitment from our state. Building commuter and high-speed rail lines will create thousands of jobs; it will stimulate our economy; and it will mean transformative change for our metropolitan areas."

Atwater called for the special session after the meeting. He was joined by state Sens. Al Lawson of Tallahassee - leader of the Democratic caucus - and J.D. Alexander, R- Lake Wales.

Crist said during an impromptu news conference in Tallahassee that he would back a special session. A formal announcement of the session, however, is still pending. Timing is critical because the Obama administration intends to announce this winter which states will get high-speed rail money. Federal officials are sifting through 45 requests from 24 states seeking a total of $50 billion. The fund holds only $8 billion.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, one of SunRail's leading supporters, predicted success if the session is held.

"I don't think we would have a special session if we didn't have the votes," said Dyer of the train that would run for 61.5 miles and link DeLand in Volusia County with downtown Orlando and Poinciana in Osceola County.

It takes 21 votes to pass the 40-member Senate; last session SunRail garnered only 16.