A Desperate Ploy to Rescue SunRail

The SunRail supporters in the room . ...couldn’t have asked for tougher talk had they scripted LaHood’s comments themselves.

You may have never heard of Ray LaHood until he came to town in early October and gave SunRail supporters a carrot and stick to bait and beat their opponents into submission.     

The U.S. transportation secretary made Page 1 of the Orlando Sentinel when he said, “You’ve got to get your act together.” He was scolding SunRail’s nemesis, the Florida Senate, where Sen. Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland) has twice led a coalition to stop the $1.2 billion (and that’s only the start-up cost) Central Florida commuter rail project.  He then delivered an ultimatum: If the Senate didn’t back SunRail the state could all but forget about getting $2.5 billion of federal stimulus aid to build a bullet train corridor from Orlando to Tampa.   

The SunRail supporters in the room, including Congressman John Mica of Winter Park, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and state Sen. Lee Constantine (R-Altamonte Springs), couldn’t have asked for tougher talk had they scripted LaHood’s comments themselves. But they probably knew what he was going to say anyway—LaHood delivered the same spiel in Georgia only a few weeks earlier. When describing Atlanta’s chances of getting high-speed rail, he said, “It’ll come to Atlanta if Georgia gets its act together” on supporting mass transit.

LaHood knew his line would get good play here with a supportive press, but I think it was SunRail opponents in the Senate who were being played. Here’s what LaHood had to say on May 8 about which states he considered  top candidates for high-speed rail money: Florida and California “are way ahead of the curve.” That comment came a week after the Senate voted down SunRail. 

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t know about that vote, or that SunRail and Florida’s HSR system would not link up. (Connectivity of transit systems is a must with LaHood and Mica, but there is a four-mile gap between HSR’s Orlando airport terminus and the SunRail stop at Sand Lake Road and Orange Avenue. That means  another mode of transportation would be needed to provide the link. Get ready to spend a bundle more on shuttle buses or light rail between rail stations.) 

LaHood came to Orlando for one reason —to hand SunRailers political leverage that they could use to try to pry Senate votes out of Dockery’s hands when the issue comes up again next session. Backers will chastise SunRail foes for standing in the way of an economic recovery that would be spurred  by HSR aid from Washington.

The question now becomes: What quid pro quo deals will be struck to get SunRail out of the Senate?
South Florida lawmakers have failed to get the Senate to back a $2 rental car surcharge as a dedicated funding source for financially stressed Tri-Rail. Would Central Florida senators get behind the fee in exchange for support on SunRail?

Dockery and other SunRail foes insist that the two proposed transit systems are separate issues. But LaHood and Mica don’t see it that way, and they have upped the ante to elevate SunRail to a matter of statewide importance.      

As for the bullet train, my gut tells me that it  would be commuter rail by another name but at 150 mph—and with far bigger deficits.

Look at any government-run, taxpayer-subsidized commuter rail operator across the country, from MARTA in Atlanta to BART in Northern California, and the story is the same: Losses mount while fares and parking fees go up and service goes down. The scenario would be no different here with SunRail. 

LaHood didn’t do Central Florida taxpayers any favors by tying high-speed rail’s fate to SunRail. But he did desperate SunRail
supporters a big one.

I’m afraid we could owe him big time for that, too.

CORRECTION: My apologies to Deborah Rusnock, an organizer of Canstructionorlando. I misspelled her last name in this space last month. 

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