THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 1, 2009 – Without major changes to the deal that would allow the Department of Transportation to purchase tracks from CSX Corp. to build the proposed SunRail Orlando commuter train, an extra six months granted by the company to hammer out details is “manufactured news,” the woman credited with derailing the train said Wednesday.
Sen. Paula Dockery told the News Service of Florida that she was unsurprised that the company extended the period to negotiate the SunRail liability agreement, which the freight rail company has tied to the sale of the track. The current agreement – a “no fault” indemnification agreement that would have the state and CSX each responsible for its own equipment, workers and passengers no matter who causes an accident and third party damage being split – was voted down by the Senate this spring despite being changed from a broader immunity plan the chamber balked at in 2008.
Dockery said that with the company slated to receive more than $600 million for the sale of the tracks that would be used for the proposed train and improvements to existing rails that would be used by rerouted freight trains, CSX has much to gain by giving the state more time.
“This deal was cut between the Florida DOT and CSX over two years ago and this arbitrary date of June 30 was set,” Dockery said. “The extension of the contract seems like a no-brainer (for CSX).”
Dockery said that she would have liked to see the DOT be more aggressive in trying to reconfigure the deal, as opposed to focusing solely on extending the deadline for the existing one. Dockery said she would like to see more flexibility from CSX on the liability, which backers said Monday the company was willing to revise. She also said she’d like to see more flexibility on the cost of the tracks, which was not mentioned as a change.
“The DOT should have said ‘let’s negotiate a better deal,’ but instead they were the ones putting pressure on CSX to extend,” she said. “They should have said that we need legislative approval about the spending of taxpayer money and where it’s going to go. They ought to put the price tag to the taxpayers on the table.”
But DOT spokesman Dick Kane said the deal was negotiated because Orlando area lawmakers wanted more time, not because the state transportation agency was eager for it.
“We understand the locals have been meeting with CSX,” Kane said. “Commuter rail is probably their biggest priority, so we are working with them to provide it.”
CSX spokesman Gary Sease agreed, telling the News Service that the freight company’s objective in the extension was “to determine if there was a way to complete the transaction.”
Hailing the extension earlier this week, SunRail backers said the new deadline would allow supporters to continue addressing concerns that were raised in the lengthy Senate debate and said opposition to the measure was not based on the concept itself, but the details of the plan.
Dockery, says she supports the development of commuter rail in Orlando despite being the bill’s primary opponent in the Legislature, said she hoped that was not just lip service.
“I hope that this is truly a good faith effort to renegotiate and not an effort to repackage the same deal and go back for round three,” she said.
But Sease said the deal was unlikely to be completely restructured during the extended negotiation period.
“We have an agreement with FDOT that was discussed pretty thoroughly during the most recent session,” he said
Detailed context on Florida transportation issues is available on the NSF Transportation Backgrounder at http://www.newsserviceflorida.com/transportation/transportation.htm.
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