December 9, 2009 / 3:56 PM / 11 years ago

Florida lawmakers OK rail-spending package

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - A bill backers say will put passenger rail on a fast track in Florida was before Governor Charlie Crist on Wednesday after lawmakers agreed to a deal designed to lure federal stimulus dollars to the state.

Following an agreement with railroad workers that had held up legislation, the Florida Senate late on Tuesday voted 27-10 to approve the measure during a special legislative session. The state House okayed the bill on Monday by 84-25.

Backers hope the new law will help draw $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money for a proposed high-speed rail route between Tampa and Orlando. A link connecting Orlando to Miami has also been proposed.

The measure, which Crist has said he will sign, provides funding for a financially beleaguered commuter-rail system in south Florida’s Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties and a proposed system for the Orlando area in the state’s center.

Backers said the special legislative session was needed because federal officials had warned that Florida, a state with meager public transport systems, needed to demonstrate commitment to rail projects. Otherwise, Florida would have very little chance of getting some of the $8 billion of federal funds set aside by Congress for public transit projects.

Though not part of the bill, the state plans to purchase 61.5 miles of track for $432 million from CSX Corp for SunRail in the Orlando area.

Critics pointed to Florida’s severe budget problems and called the measure a state funding grab for commuter projects at the expense of other transportation projects. They also criticized provisions that provide protections to CSX.

“Countless investments in our citizens have been eliminated, and billions of dollars have been slashed from the budget, making local governments responsible for Tallahassee’s failed policies,” said Sen. Charlie Justice, a Democrat from St. Petersburg.

The bill provides indemnity to Jacksonville-based CSX for accidents occurring on its rail lines used for commuter purposes and in 2014 begins funneling $60 million a year in transportation funds to rail projects. To oversee the state’s rail endeavors, the measure creates two state entities to plan and coordinate passenger rail throughout the state.

The bill increases by up to $15 million a year funding for the Tri-Rail commuter line in south Florida. The system is in financial straits despite a $27 million a year state subsidy.

A potential Senate impasse was avoided as transit backers reached a deal with the AFL-CIO union, which had opposed the measure because it lacked protections for union rail workers.

Reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee; Additional reporting and writing by Michael Connor in Miami; Editing by James Dalgleish

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