The Florida Legislature begins a special session today to consider creating a statewide passenger rail policy and to approve funding for existing and new rail projects.

Gov. Charlie Crist and top lawmakers called the session after federal transportation officials warned the state it needed to provide additional funding to protect ongoing operations at South Florida’s Tri-Rail system, which received some federal funding, and to dedicate a funding source for its proposed high-speed rail system.

By doing those things, the state hopes to place itself in a better position to win $2.5 billion of stimulus funds set aside for high-speed rail projects around the country. The state wants to begin building a high-speed network between Tampa and Orlando, which would be followed later by an extension from Orlando to Miami.

The Legislature also will take action to deal with liability and funding issues that has delayed a central Florida commuter rail project called SunRail.

“A statewide rail transit policy not only invests in Florida’s future and lays the foundation for long-term economic development, it will also bring much-needed jobs at a time when almost a million Floridians are unemployed and looking for ways to meet their financial obligations,” Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-Palm Beach, said in a statement.

A special winter session of the Legislature had been anticipated to deal with an Indian gaming compact proposed by the governor. However, lawmakers have disagreed with most of the terms negotiated by Crist.

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