Crist should veto runaway, giveaway rail bill

An Opinion By Senator Paula Dockery

Special To The Tampa Tribune

Published December 14, 2009


Special interests won the day in Tallahassee last week.

For two years, a coalition of my Florida Senate colleagues demanded that the state Department of Transportation renegotiate a sweetheart deal with CSX Railroad for a new commuter-rail line around Orlando.

But in last week's hastily called special session, a tidal wave of special interests overcame common sense - and stuck you, the taxpayers, with the bill.

If Gov. Charlie Crist signs this overpriced bill, as he has said he will, Florida taxpayers will pay $10.5 million per mile of track. Compare that to Massachusetts, which will pay $1.5 million per mile for a similar project, or Warren Buffett, who just bought a railroad for $1.37 million per mile.

Plus, once Florida buys the tracks and taxpayers start paying for maintenance and operations, the freight carrier will still get to use the line 12 hours a day! Worst of all: If freight accidents kill people on state commuter-rail lines, taxpayers will pay the bill.

I never imagined leading a fight against a commuter-rail deal. I'm an advocate of rail transit and an early leader of private-public partnerships for high-speed rail. But as Ross Perot famously said, the devil's in the details, and what the Legislature just passed is a terrible deal.

Tell the governor to veto it.

This deal says a Wall Street company can no longer be held responsible for its negligence - horrible public policy.

I hardly recognize some of my fellow Republicans in Tallahassee these days. When did we become the party of big spenders, big government and corporate giveaways?

Like most people, I assumed the state transportation department would be a tough negotiator when a Fortune 500 company approached with an offer to sell an asset - in this case, 61.5 miles of heavy freight track through Central Florida communities and back woods.

But bad things happen when big-money interests meet behind closed doors with state officials who spend taxpayer money like free money. You can bet they'd drive a harder bargain were they reaching into their own pockets.

Supposedly, last week's special session was called to solve a problem for South Florida's Tri-Rail commuter system, which runs through Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Tri-Rail is running a $40 million annual deficit, so the Legislature gave it a $15 million Band Aid from extra gasoline tax revenues. How does a one-time infusion solve Tri-Rail's need for a dedicated funding source?

Supposedly, too, this session was called to prove Florida is serious about rail and should be awarded federal stimulus dollars for high-speed rail. But nothing in the federal application said that to be competitive, Florida must first award Wall Street-style subsidies.

Had this legislation truly helped Tri-Rail, forced CSX to take responsibility for any negligence and created a statewide rail vision without unnecessarily growing the size of government, lawmakers might have reached consensus. But an army of lobbyists made sure the bill passed as is, corporate giveaways intact.

Soon, the Legislature will go into regular session, where we face a $2.6 billion budget gap. My concern is ensuring that Florida doesn't pay the CSX bill by further taxing people who are struggling to keep their homes. The money shouldn't come from education, criminal justice or health and human services, either.

But given the power of special interests in Tallahassee, I encourage you to hold onto your wallets and remember their names on Election Day.

CSX directed rail legislation to its benefit

Paula Dockery is a Republican senator from Lakeland and a candidate for governor.