CSX deal still up in the air

04/30/08 Mitch E. Perry
WMNF Drive-Time News Thursday

A vote in the state House yesterday gave CSX $436 million for the right of way for a transportation project and grants the company lawsuit liability protection.

The Legislature’s bill is a little less expensive than the $650-million plan that the Florida Department of Transportation had previously negotiated. The deal is a controversial one – not only for its still enormous price tag in a terrible budget year, but also because of what critics call a "back deal" arrangement.

Doug Calloway, with Floridians For Better Transportation, says on one level he wants the plan to go through, but he understands that it’s extremely controversial.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan is also strongly in favor of the Legislature approving the CSX commuter rail deal. He says its approval will boost the potential for a similar plan to happen in the Tampa bay area.

Duncan also added that he believes that if the CSX/Central Florida project does not reach fruition, he doubts that they’d want to work in the Tampa Bay area.

Duncan, who also serves as vice chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA), questions some of the biggest criticism of the plans – including that the negotiations were held in secret.

There are considerable differences in the bills pending in the House and Senate. The Senate version creates a $250 million insurance policy for accidents on the rail line, while the House authorizes a $200 million policy. The Senate version sets higher lawsuit caps for injuries and allows lawyers to collect fees equal to 40 percent of a jury award.

Duncan said he doesn’t think the amount of liability is disproportionate for the size of the deal.

The state’s chief financial officer, Alex Sink, thoroughly disagrees. In a letter sent last week, Sink urged legislators to consider the state's liability in various scenarios should an accident occur under the current proposed language. She said the liability rests on a no-fault principle, meaning taxpayers will be responsible for paying the bill in several scenarios, even if CSX is completely at fault.

Tara Klimek is a spokesperson for CFO Sink. She said Sink is a strong supporter of commuter rail, but doesn’t believe the state needs to give away the store to get it here.

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