BRADENTON, Fla. — The Florida House yesterday passed a bill adopting a statewide passenger rail policy and creating a commission to oversee existing and new rail projects.
HB 1B, passed on a vote of 84 to 25, also resolves liability issues with the long-planned central Florida SunRail commuter project and provides dedicated funding for existing and new rail projects.
The bill was immediately sent to the Senate, which began committee reviews, but some legislative experts say its outcome is uncertain.
A special session began late last week to establish a commuter rail policy and to commit state funds in hopes of making Florida more attractive to federal regulators who are doling out stimulus dollars for bullet train projects across the country.
Florida hopes to place itself in a better position to win $2.5 billion of stimulus funding that would help it begin building a high-speed network between Tampa and Orlando, which would be followed by an extension from Orlando to Miami.
Gov. Charlie Crist and top lawmakers called the special session after federal transportation officials warned Florida it needed to step up to the plate and commit state dollars to existing rail lines and planned projects.
Not only did the state need to identify funding sources for new projects, but federal officials said they might seek the return of funding that was spent for Florida’s only existing commuter service, the 80-mile Tri-Rail that runs between Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties. That system was built with $256 million in federal grants that required the system to maintain certain operational service levels.
But earlier this year, Tri-Rail threatened to reduce operations because of budget problems worsened by the recession.
The bill being considered by the Legislature creates the Florida Rail Enterprise under the state Department of Transportation with its own appointed executive director. A nine-member Florida Statewide Passenger Rail Commission would be appointed to monitor the overall program and expenses, including the use of bond proceeds.
The new agency would operate similar to the Florida Turnpike Enterprise and would be responsible for developing and operating state-owned passenger rail systems, including high-speed rail, funding passenger rails systems, and coordinating operations.
The enterprise system would be allowed to locate, plan, design, finance, construct, maintain, own, operate, administer, and manage the state’s high-speed rail system. It also would have the ability to enter into public-private partnerships for building, financing, and operating such systems.
The bill also provides dedicated funding sources for high-speed rail, Tri-Rail, and SunRail. A portion of the funding for rail is expected to come from increased revenue, which government economists projected the state would receive last week.
Those projections estimate the state could collect more than $300 million in revenue over the previous estimate — the first rise in Florida’s projected revenue in three years.
Not all of that would go to transportation, but House Speaker Larry Cretul called the sign of rising revenue encouraging.
“The estimates suggest there has been a very modest improvement in the Florida revenue outlook,” he said. “For now, our approach to state spending remains cautious and prudent … Florida still faces significant economic challenges in the years ahead.”
Florida still projects a deficit in fiscal 2011 largely due to rising Medicaid costs.
Year’s of declining revenue prompted rating agencies to place negative outlooks on the state’s implied general obligation debt, which is AAA by Standard & Poor’s, AA-plus by Fitch Ratings, and Aa1 by Moody’s Investors Service.