|We think: Commuter rail might not run if Crist doesn't take controls|
|Written by Marjorie Holt|
|Tuesday, January 27 2009|
It's time for Gov. Charlie Crist to step up on commuter rail. Not just support it, but champion it. Anything less from Mr. Crist and the 61-mile mass transit system for Central Florida might not run.
It cleared one major obstacle when backers this month got some of the saboteurs who fought it last year to lay down their arms. Trial lawyers quit their opposition when officials agreed to drop restrictions curbing their ability to sue operators after accidents.
But another major obstacle blocks its path, one that could derail it without Mr. Crist's swift intervention and leadership. Commuter rail's remaining opponents are trying to use the ailing economy as an excuse to win over state senators skittish about spending money on new projects (especially outside their districts).
They're doing so even though the $432 million the state has agreed to pay CSX for the rail line sits in a transportation trust fund that can't be used to pay for, say, non-transportation projects in other regions of the state.
And they're doing so despite the fact that commuter rail has few equals in its ability to stimulate the weakened economy. It's expected to generate thousands of construction jobs and help rejuvenate retail, commercial and housing sectors.
The project's chief advocates -- Central Florida's business leaders and elected officials -- are busy trumpeting those benefits. And in the state House of Representatives, it's resonating. As it did last year, commuter rail is expected to pass that chamber again this year.
But several senators outside our region remain concerned about how their support for commuter rail in Central Florida could be used against them by rail opponents. Last year, egged on by Paula Dockery, the Senate's leading commuter rail foe, trial lawyers threatened to run attack ads against senators who supported the trains for Orlando.
What's to stop opponents from again launching similar campaigns against them, trying to make the senators' constituents think the money for rail instead could have funded health care programs or community centers in their districts -- when it couldn't?
Enter the governor. Not next month or the month after but now. Last year, Mr. Crist waited till the last day of the legislative session to try brokering a deal on commuter rail. The come-lately approach didn't stand a chance.
Another slow approach to powering commuter rail through the Legislature could doom it. That's especially true this year because the longer it takes for legislators to approve rail, the greater the opportunity will be for naysayers like Ms. Dockery to try forming raiding parties to rob the money promised it. And they'll use the state's looming budget deficit as a ruse to help justify it.
Some commuter rail supporters say the governor is showing more interest in commuter rail than he did this time last year. Last month he said "most issues" concerning it are attractive to him. With its ability to stimulate the economy, give commuters an alternative to gridlocked roads and respect the environment, how couldn't it be attractive?
Other boosters, with knowledge of some meetings the governor's had on commuter rail, say he indicated his support; showed his commitment; said he'd help. He's on board, said one. "You don't need to convince someone who says he's already convinced."
But you do need him to help convince others. The governor's in a unique position to do that -- certainly a stronger one than supporters whose constituents stand to benefit from riding the trains.
Elected to serve all the state's residents, the governor could promise senators outside Central Florida that he'd work next on getting similar systems for Tampa and Jacksonville. And he could promise that he'd help deflect any false or misleading attacks aimed at them for supporting a system that, despite what opponents might say, would bring Florida more jobs and better transportation options.
No one's better positioned than the governor to do that. It's up to him to drive the train.
Come on, Mr. Crist -- if you're on board, let Florida know it.
Copyright © 2009, Orlando Sentinel
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