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Blog Article Details
Date: 07/01/2011
Title: Sunrail Project Back on Track
Gov. Rick Scott this morning gave the go-ahead to SunRail, the long-delayed Central Florida commuter train project.

Ananth Prasad, secretary of the state Department of Transportation, made the official announcement during aTallahassee news conference heavily attended by public-relations staffers working for local governments and business groups backing the project.

The $1.2 billion train was put on hold in January by Scott, who has made it clear that he is no fan of the project.

"SunRail is a project that the Department, previous governors, legislatures, local elected officials, and tens of thousands of Floridians have spent years working on to move forward," said Prasad, who toured the region this week. He said local government partners "supported a commuter rail system and the local governments will participate in any cost overruns."
 
Prasad said the six-month delay in the project didn't unearth any new facts but was needed for the governor's "due diligence." He said the state was committed to making it work with minimum cost overruns.

"We're going to deliver this project with the least amount of cost overruns," Prasad said. "This project is going to be sort of a judgment day project. If we cannot make SunRail successful, probably there will be no more commuter trains in Florida. … we have to make this train, SunRail, successful."

The decision sets the stage for SunRail to begin operations as early as May 2014, running between DeBary in Volusia County, downtown Orlando and the south edge of Orange County. Within another couple of years it supposed to go to DeLand in Volusia andPoinciana inOsceola County.

The approval ends the region's 30-year struggle to come up with a transportation alternative to cars and buses. Previous attempts that included magnetically levitated trains and light rail have failed.

Close to 50 Central Florida leaders gathered at the offices of MetroPlan in downtownOrlando to await Prasad's announcement. But since there was no television linkup, they had to rely on cell phones to get the final word.

"Needless to say, this is a great day for Central Florida," said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. "We can all breath a lot easier now, literally and figuratively."

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a staunch SunRail supporter who is on vacation, issued a statement saying, "Securing this once-in-a-generation project has not been easy. As the saying goes, nothing worth doing is ever easy."

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who was instrumental in winning a federal pledge of more than $300 million for the train, said, ""This is as significant for the state as when Henry Flagler brought the railroad to Florida and when President Eisenhower initiated the Interstate. This transportation alternative offers the only real cost-effective, near-term solution for our region's highway congestion, and will have tremendous benefits for employment."

While Scott closely held his decision, he did leave hints that he would give his approval, most prominently by setting aside more than $269 million for SunRail in the state budget that takes effect today.

That money largely is slated for CSX, the Jacksonville-based railroad company that owns the tracks the state would buy for the commuter train.

The state Department of Transportation is in charge of getting SunRail on the move and will oversee operations for the first seven years. After that, the local governments would take control.

An estimated 4,200 construction jobs are supposed to be created by the train, along with an untold amount of development planned around the 17 stops on the 61-mile system. One of the biggest expansion plans revolves around the Florida Hospital campus just north of downtownOrlando.

More than $70 million in taxpayer dollars has already been spent gearing up for the project, first proposed in 2005 by former Gov.Jeb Bush.

Nonetheless, Scott's decision to put the project on hold in January sent shockwaves through local business and political circles and prompted months of behind-the-scenes lobbying and negotiations to get the train started again.

"This was a total regional effort to convey support for the project," said House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican who pushed the project's insurance-liability provisions through his chamber twice and said he as "really proud of the governor."

But critics of Scott's decision last February to scuttle another $2.7 billion high-speed rail project that was almost exclusively financed by the federal government blasted the governor for what they called an obvious contradiction.

"Governor Scott used all the right arguments to green light the wrong rail project," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who unsuccessfully sued Scott after he killed the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail project.

"His support had nothing to do with good policy, good logic, or the good of Floridians. But it had everything to do with hypocrisy and allegiance to his Republican brethren."

Cannon said there was a practical difference between the two trains. "It's a different project in the degree of planning and the return for SunRail versus the unpredictability of high-speed rail," he said.

Sharon Calvert of the Tampa tea party said she was "extremely disappointed" in the decision and would be watching Prasad to ensure that if the train performs poorly that the state does not bail out local jurisdictions.

"I'm concerned with the Florida taxpayer. I think there's liability," Calvert said.

Everett Wilkinson of the South Florida tea party in West Palm Beach said, ""Governor Rick Scott was clearly being influenced by big money lobbyists and failed to deliver on his promises. I really thought he was going to fight more for the taxpayers and wouldn't give up."
Source: Orlando Sentinel
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