BRADENTON, Fla. — Top Florida officials are considering calling a special session of the Legislature in early December to solve problems that could prevent the state from getting federal stimulus funds for a variety of rail projects.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said he would like a special session called after meeting with federal transportation officials earlier this week. Those officials stressed that Florida must ante up financial support for its own projects if it expects to be in the running for a piece of the more than $8 billion in stimulus funding set aside for rail, he said.
Gov. Charlie Crist said he also supports the idea of holding a special session to work on rail funding issues.
Florida has submitted several rail project applications for federal funds, including $2.5 billion for a high-speed line between Tampa and Orlando for which the state already owns the right of way. Florida is also seeking federal funds for a new 61-mile commuter system called SunRail in central Florida that would operate on tracks purchased from CSX Corp.
Atwater said federal officials this week reiterated issues cited by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and transit director Peter Rogoff, who spoke to rail supporters in Orlando earlier this month.
The most pressing problem is the Legislature’s refusal to approve dedicated funding for Florida’s only commuter service, Tri-Rail, which runs between Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties. That system was built with $256 million in federal grants requiring certain operational service levels, but Tri-Rail is threatening to reduce service because of budget problems worsened by the recession. In Orlando, Rogoff said his agency could demand that Tri-Rail return the federal funds if service is reduced.
Another problem is that lawmakers have for two years refused to approve funding to buy the CSX tracks and to sign off on a liability agreement for SunRail.
Atwater said he believes there is support now among lawmakers to approve a subsidy for Tri-Rail and to work out issues regarding SunRail in a special session. Federal transportation officials are expected to announce rail stimulus awards by the end of the year.
It was thought that the Legislature would meet in special session this fall to approve a gaming compact with the Seminole Indians, but that likelihood grew dimmer this week.
House Speaker Larry Cretul on Wednesday said problems with the compact negotiated by Crist have stalled attempts to get it approved by the full Legislature.
Without a special session, it is not clear when the Legislature might act on the rail issues.