December 14th, 2007 9:25 AM by Alan Martin
TALLAHASSEE | Lawmakers charged Thursday that the state's $491 million plan to build a commuter rail system in Central Florida may help Orlando but will burden Polk County with more freight trains and trucks.
I don't want to kill commuter rail in Orlando. I think it's great," said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. "But we should not benefit one part of the state at the expense of another."Dockery and other Polk County lawmakers are upset with the state Department of Transportation's agreement with the CSX Corp. where the state will buy 61.5 miles of track from the private railway in the Orlando area and use it for a new commuter rail service, stretching between Volusia and Osceola counties.But with the increased commuter rail traffic on the Orlando lines, CSX also plans to shift more of its freight trains from the Orlando area to the "S" line running through Lakeland, Winter Haven, Plant City, Wildwood and Ocala. Additionally, CSX will move a major rail hub from Orlando to Winter Haven, which will increase train and truck traffic in that area.All together, the state will pay $491 million to CSX, including $150 million to purchase the commuter rail line, $23 million to relocate the rail hub from Orlando to Winter Haven and $266 million to allow CSX to upgrade its "S" line.Dockery said the agreement was reached without consulting cities like Lakeland, which will see a significant increase in freight train traffic running through the heart of the city's downtown."What we're upset about is that the state is paying to upgrade a line so that more freight can come through our town and kill our downtown business and kill our way of life," Dockery told the Senate Transportation appropriations committee.Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, said allowing more freight traffic on the "S" line will make it difficult in the future to use that line for a commuter service in the Tampa Bay region, similar to the Orlando project. Ross said the state needs to take a more "comprehensive" approach to developing rail service across the state."This unfortunately does it in such a piecemeal fashion that it adversely affects any plan for comprehensive rail, either freight or commuter, throughout the state," Ross said.Lakeland officials and residents also questioned the project, which was initiated under former Gov. Jeb Bush."Our city will see the brunt of the freight traffic," said Julie Townsend, director of the Downtown Lakeland Partnership, a marketing and economic development organization. "It will become the freight superhighway to what the state has dubbed the mother of all rail yards. We're begging you to take the time and look at this deal closely."Pam Childers, a Winter Haven resident who lives near the proposed rail hub, said she is worried that her community does not have the roads to handle the increased truck traffic from the facility."This relocation does not get trucks off the roads of Florida," she said. "It just puts them all in Polk County."But whether the objections can overcome the momentum for the project remains to be seen. Polk officials are divided over the issue, with the city of Winter Haven strongly backing the CSX rail hub, arguing it will spur economic development in the community.Senate Republican leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, who supports the rail project, warned that Florida could lose federal funding for the commuter rail project if the state balks on the deal. "The interest level would go to just about zero if we don't do it now," Webster said congressional members had told him.DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos defended the project, noting that although the commuter rail project is costly, it is far cheaper than widening the congested lanes of Interstate 4. She said it would cost $2 billion to add one lane, each way, on a 30-mile stretch of I-4.DOT officials estimate the commuter rail service will eliminate about 12,000 trips a day from the Orlando roadways.Senate Transportation Appropriations Chairman Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the concerns over the CSX deal will be considered as lawmakers put together next year's budget, which will authorize funding for the project.House Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, said he believed the project deserved more scrutiny, arguing that Plant City, like Lakeland, would be heavily impacted by the increase in train traffic."Those towns were basically left out of anything in the planning process," he said.But Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, complained that Thursday's debate was too one-sided and he promised to rally Orlando area officials in favor of the project the next time the Legislature reviews the proposal.He also questioned how much "devastation" Lakeland would suffer if it only faced an additional four trains a day, arguing CSX already has the right to increase traffic on its rail system."It's a private company and it can do what it wants with its tracks," he said.Dockery and Ross said they will advocate relocating the rail hub to a former phosphate mining site in southwestern Polk County that would keep most of the increased rail traffic out of downtown Lakeland.Ross also said with the state facing a budget crisis, he will continue to raise questions about the $491 million payment to a private company."The Legislature still holds the keys to the appropriations," he said.
Courtesy of the Ledger