BRADENTON, Fla. — The Florida Legislature late Tuesday finished work on a bill enacting a statewide comprehensive passenger rail policy and providing funds for existing and new rail projects.
The bill cleared its final vote in the Senate by a vote of 27 to 10. It had passed the House Monday on a 84-to-25 vote.
Gov. Charlie Crist, a supporter of the measure, is expected to quickly sign the bill.
Crist called lawmakers who voted for the bill “brave” for taking a historic step to transform Florida’s future as it relates to transportation as well as new employment and economic opportunities.
“Providing jobs for Floridians continues to be to the most important reason to pass this legislation,” the governor said in a statement.
While the bill resolves liability issues related to a planned, but stalled, central Florida commuter rail network called SunRail, it also sets the stage for creation of a high-speed train system to be built between Tampa and Orlando and between Orlando and Miami.
A high speed train network for Florida has been studied for years, but it also has been controversial because of the high cost.
However, the Sunshine state’s plans were dusted off when the federal government this year made billions in stimulus funding available for high-speed rail projects across the country. Florida has applied for $2.5 billion in federal stimulus dollars and hopes that this week’s legislative action will make it a better candidate to win the federal aid.
Florida’s new rail bill also provides an increased subsidy, between $13 million to $15 million annually, to help reduce operating deficits at Tri-Rail, the only existing commuter rail network in the state. It serves Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
The state already contributes $27 million a year toward Tri-Rail, but the system for several years has said it needs more funding to maintain operations or it would have to reduce services. However, lawmakers could not agree on several funding proposals.
Without increased funding to maintain service levels on the 80-mile Tri-Rail, the state faced the prospect of having to return $256 million in federal funds that went toward building the south Florida rail system.
The rail funding set aside in the bill comes from shifting existing dollars in the state’s transportation budget and without increasing any taxes, according to House Speaker Larry Cretul.
“The House and Senate have now positioned Florida to be very competitive in drawing down critical federal funds for mass transit,” he said. “We have responsibly addressed transportation issues.”
The new legislation also creates the Florida Rail Enterprise under the state Department of Transportation with its own appointed executive director, and a nine-member Florida Statewide Passenger Rail Commission to monitor the overall program and expenses, including the use of bond proceeds.