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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

SunRail a go

SunRail a go

On Friday, Governor Rick Scott gave the Central Florida commuter rail project the green light. However, there are now some people inside and outside of the rail community who have disparaged the move as a form of corporate welfare that benefits track owner CSX since the Class I carrier will be able to move much of its traffic over to the S-Line (the state will buy 61 miles of the A-Line between DeLand and Poinciana). Other excuses against SunRail range from cost (a favorite position of the Tea Party, who doesn't want people to do anything other than drive or fly) to the speed of the train to the project somehow being "the Republicans' train" as opposed to the failed HSR project to jealousy that a slower, more convenient train would be more marketable than said fast train.

I could not disagree with these critics any more. When it comes to the speed, I have said time and time again that Florida does not even have a good conventional rail system in place to even merit federal funding (checked the Amtrak schedules lately?) for an HSR system. As a result, the state should be trying to start with a conventional, 79 mph system. The core system would center on Jacksonville-St. Augustine/Orlando/Ocala-Tampa/Miami divvied up into six routes. Unlike many others, I see SunRail as precursor to such a system. That will happen with not only the success of SunRail, but also, a companion commuter project called the Orange Blossom Express that will serve Orlando's northwest suburbs and may be operated by the freight company that owns the rails. The state could easily decide to set up a longer-running route that would serve the aforementioned cities but with fewer stops along the 61-mile portion. Such a system would alleviate overcrowding at the current Amtrak station in Orlando as the LYNX and Church Street (for the OBE) stations would become the city's rail hubs given that both SunRail and the OBE will call that station home.

On the partisan issue, that needs to be cut out especially since the fiercest SunRail critic was state Senator Paula Dockery, whose husband was one of the biggest backers of the HSR project (as a matter of fact, C.C. Dockery was the person responsible for mandating HSR as a state constitutional requirement from 2000 to 2004) is herself a Republican. Now, it may be true that Representative Mica himself has had heavy sway over both Orlando area projects, but Orlando needs congestion alternatives just as much as San Francisco or New York City. While the GOP has gone out of its way to slam rail projects as of late, if they are confronted with enough outraged constituents, they will have to accept sensible rail projects like SunRail.

This brings me back to Rick Scott. It is very clear that the governor reluctantly approved this project. In other words, he wanted to give in to his Tea Party pals, but decided that he could not reject the project because he's in the midst of an image rehabilitation tour after his approval ratings tanked. Had he given SunRail the HSR treatment, Scott would have been in court yet again over a rail project that he killed. His DOT chief has warned the counties involved in the project that "there will be no bailout if SunRail fails." What those two fail to realize is that some form of a statewide rail system will go on with or without them! Contrary to what the pro-road lobby says, building a bunch of toll roads to nowhere and widening interstate highways will not solve Florida's problems. Providing alternative travel options will drive revenue to a state that heavily depends on tourists.

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