More Powerful Than a Locomotive


In stopping SunRail for the second straight year, state Sen. Paula Dockery overcame formidable opposition. Of course, she did have the help of a three-ring binder filled with highlighted notes on the proposed commuter-rail project.

Paula Dockery
State Sen. Paula Dockery, pictured here in the Capitol Rotunda,
kicked SunRail to the curb.

The greeting card on Paula Dockery’s desk at the state Capitol says it all.

“Kick Butt!” it reads.

Sent by staffers in the state senator’s Lakeland office, the card shows a cartoon of a frenzied woman leaping in the air.

Dockery, though, kept both feet firmly on the ground during the recently ended legislative session, steadily and repeatedly beating back Central Florida’s most powerful political players and halting legislation aimed at clearing the way for the SunRail commuter train through greater Orlando.

The 61.5-mile project, whose price tag was $1.2 billion according to supporters and double that in Dockery’s view, was derailed for the second straight year by the Republican lawmaker.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer blamed “forces of evil” for killing the train.

But it was really Dockery, 48, who orchestrated a coalition of opponents into blocking the project, despite its support from Gov. Charlie Crist and state business leaders who envisioned SunRail as a homegrown stimulus package, creating jobs in a lousy economy.

Dockery refused to buy the pitch.

“It was hatched in secret and the proponents wanted to say, `We need commuter rail. Here’s our plan. We have federal money.’ But when you looked into anything they said, it turned out to be not quite factual,” says Dockery, whose district includes parts of Osceola and Lake counties.

Legislation creating a $200 million “no-fault” insurance agreement between the state and CSX Transportation was the key element of this year’s deal.

If that was OK’d, the state then was ready to pay CSX $432 million for track the company owned from DeLand through Orlando to Poinciana. To get commuter rail running by 2011, the state also would cover $173 million in rail improvements.

While the House was an easy sell on SunRail, Florida’s 40-member Senate was a different story. That’s where Dockery, who has served 13 years in the Legislature, turned SunRail into the little engine that couldn’t.

In the clubby, walnut-paneled atmosphere of the Senate chambers, old allegiances—and past rivalries—rarely die. Dockery exploited both in scuttling SunRail.

Outnumbered South Florida Democrats were wooed to Dockery’s side with warnings that the rail project could cost union jobs. She also raised fears of voter retaliation if Democrats embraced a big-dollar out-of-town rail project while hometown schools were being cut to balance the budget.

Confident of gaining virtually all 14 Senate Democrats, Dockery had to round up at least six Republicans to kill SunRail. She did that by keeping a small posse of longtime allies by her side and maintaining a kinship built on past and current fights over Senate leadership.

Dockery also has a history that played into the fight. Her husband, Lakeland businessman C.C. “Doc” Dockery, almost single-handedly sold Florida voters on high-speed rail in 2000, spending $2.7 million of his own money getting a bullet-train amendment into the state Constitution.

The train was to connect Tampa Bay to greater Orlando, heading right through the Dockerys’ home base of Polk County. But then-Gov. Jeb Bush hated the idea and did all he could to slow spending and planning for the train.

Voters in 2004 repealed the amendment. Sen. Dockery denies some critics’ claims that she opposed SunRail to exact revenge for her husband.

“My husband wasn’t saying, `You go, girl.’ He was saying, ‘Please don’t take this battle on,’ ” Dockery insists, adding her husband didn’t want her challenging what looked like a potent political force.

“So to all the critics who say I was fighting this on behalf of him, nothing could be further from the truth. I like rail. My husband likes rail. But we like rail that makes sense. That’s a good deal.”

Rep. Ron Saunders, a Key West Democrat who began serving in the Legislature in 1986, is among many who think “Doc” Dockery’s fingerprints can still be found in the SunRail collapse. But Saunders also says doing the autopsy on SunRail is simple.

“In the Legislature, it’s always a lot easier to kill a bill than pass one,” he says. “This SunRail opposition was a strange coalition with a lot of moving parts. But when you have one critic totally devoted to killing something, like Dockery was, that’s tough to beat.”

That’s not all.

It’s been a stunningly bad budget year. There’s rising tension between Tampa Bay-area and Orlando-area lawmakers over who most needs commuter rail. And Dockery was able to counter, or at least raise doubts about, every pro-rail argument.

“She was tenacious. Relentless. And really good at confusing the issue,’’ says a weary Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, prime sponsor of the SunRail bill. “When you’re able to confuse an already complicated issue like SunRail, you’re going to win.”

 Armed with a three-ring binder, containing two years’ worth of letters from state and federal transportation officials, schematics of the train route, and budget detail, Dockery proved a ready and steady critic. And like any good student, she had highlighted key facts in yellow.

Dockery’s initial involvement in the project stemmed from her opposition to a proposed rail yard in a residential area near Lakeland. The yard would have increased freight traffic through the city. Last year, that became central to her opposition, along with a later-dropped provision that would have shielded the rail line from big lawsuits.

But in this recession-wracked budget year, Dockery honed in on the deal itself.

“It seems to me we didn’t need to buy the track at all,” Dockery says, leafing through her binder. “What we should be doing is a use agreement with CSX. That’s what most commuter rail projects around the country do. A better deal, that’s all I’ve ever said I’ve wanted.”

SunRail may be back for another legislative round next year. For now, Dockery gets props from opponents for kicking their butts.

Dyer, returning again empty-handed from days spent lobbying at the Capitol, acknowledged that the train likely will never run unless Dockery is on board. The mayor could only shrug, calling the senator “a worthy opponent.”

The governor is even more complimentary of Dockery’s tenacity.

“To her credit,” Crist said, after SunRail went down in defeat, “Sen. Dockery was incredibly effective. And that effectiveness should be admired.”

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