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Flagler Commissioners Endorse SunRail As Gov. Scott Prepares to Derail Commuter Line

| April 4, 2011

Henry Flagler's legacy to Flagler County and Florida is parked, for now. Rick Scott wants to ensure that it remains so.

Henry Flagler's legacy to Flagler County and Florida is parked, for now. Rick Scott wants to ensure that it remains so.

The Flagler County Commission this morning unanimously approved a resolution supporting the construction of the SunRail commuter line in Central Florida. The resolution asks Gov. Rick Scott to release money the Legislature has appropriated for the project, and to support SunRail to completion. The commission’s resolution drew a measure of opposition from the public.

SunRail is the $1.2 billion commuter train that would connect 17 stations between DeBary and Tampa over a 61-mile line. The Legislature wrangled over the project for several years and finally approved it in late 2009. The state would fund $900 million. County governments along the line would fund the rest. The line would, over the long term, relieve traffic from I-4. It was to serve as a starting point for additional rail lines, including high-speed rail, as Florida continues to grow while its roads reach their capacity either for additional vehicles or additional lanes.

SunRail doesn’t reach into Flagler County. But for thousands of county residents who have occasion to travel across Central Florida—as thousands do, and increasingly will in the future—the rail line, when operational, was bound to become part of their transportation options.

Commissioners weren’t being asked to contribute money to the project. Just a written resolution lending their voice and support.

Even that much triggered a long and frequently misinformed discussion between a half dozen members of the public who addressed the matter to commissioners (half of them in opposition, half in favor), and commissioners themselves. The contention is indicative of political winds shifting against rail transportation within months of a shift in the other direction, when it looked as if, in 2008 and 2009, Florida would become a leading developer of alternative transportation.

Opposition to any rail initiative is ironic in Flagler, a county named for a man known mostly for his Florida East Coast Railway, which opened the state to development and seeded such cities as Miami and Palm Beach.

Newly elected Gov. Rick Scott, however, is opposed to state-supported rail lines. He just killed Florida’s high-speed rail initiative, even though the federal government was picking up more than 90 percent of the $2.4 billion price tag of the projected Orlando-Tampa link. SunRail is next on Scott’s target list: he is unlikely to support a rail project mostly funded by state dollars when he’s just eliminated a project mostly funded by federal dollars, and one of his closest allies in the Florida Senate is Paula Dockery, SunRail’s harshest critic.

As a starting point, Scott suspended $235 million in immediate contracts about to be awarded for SunRail planning and construction, pending his review of the project. Scott won’t make public results of his review until summer, thus avoiding a battle with the Legislature, should he opt, as expected, to kill SunRail. Meanwhile, supporters of the project are mobilizing to ward off just such a likelihood, and asking counties peripheral to the project to join in.

“Growth will pick up again, without question, but it’s how we decide to grow which is important for how we make these decisions today,” Flagler County Commissioner Milissa Holland said. “I’m a huge fan for going on a road diet.” Roads, she said, are just as expensive as rail lines if not more so, when the cost of maintenance and environmental impacts are added. Other countries maintain their competitiveness through well developed transit systems, Holland said, pointing to Australia, recently singled out for its exemplary rail system. Doug Baxter, who heads the local county chamber of commerce and is originally from Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city and home to the world’s second-largest rail station (after London),  spoke from personal experience of the Australian system’s convenience. But it’s a matter of mindset: Floridians have to change the way they understand transportation, Baxter said.

A few others weren’t so convinced. A Palm Coast resident who spent some 60 years in New York City recalled the time when that city’s subway rides cost 25 cents (it never did: it cost 20 cents until 1970, then jumped to 30 cents), only for that cost to rise, according to him, to “over $3” today (again, not so: the current base fare is $2.25), and still, the system doesn’t pay for itself, the resident said. (He also complained about bridge tolls, including $17 to cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Staten Island and Brooklyn: wrong again though; the cash toll was raised to $13 on that bridge on Dec. 30, and E-ZPass tolls are still under $10). Misinformation often shadows discussions of the finances behind public transportation.

“I would just ask: when was the last time a highway paid for itself?” Holland said.

County Commission Chairman Alan Peterson jumped in, saying that users pay for roads through the gas tax. Not so: The federal Highway Trust Fund, which relies on the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax, has needed multi-billion dollar infusions from other revenue to meet its obligations in recent years because the gas tax hasn’t changed since 1993. In inflation-adjusted dollars, today’s gas tax is equivalent to 11.9 cents in 1993. Put another way, if the gas tax were to have the same valu8e today as it did in 1993, it would have to be set at 28.2 cents per gallon, though the trust fund would likely still face a deficit, because the nation’s highways and bridges are aging fast.

Other speakers either opposed the SunRail project or cautioned against support before more information about t was in, stressing the notion that rail lines would not pay for themselves—though public transportation rail lines never do, anywhere on the planet, and aren’t meant to: like roads, they’re seen as a public investment with benefits far broader than immediate profitability.

But Peterson, like his four colleagues on the commission, was supportive of SunRail. “The benefit of this item in Flagler County is a long way off,” he said, “but it is inevitable that we need to find different methods of transportation as efficient and as economical as possible.” Commissioners Nate McLaughlin and Barbara Revels were equally supportive, and George Hanns, near the end of the discussion, said: “Without the rail the West wouldn’t have been opened up, back in the 1800s.”

Nor would Florida.

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15 Responses for “Flagler Commissioners Endorse SunRail As Gov. Scott Prepares to Derail Commuter Line”

  1. Johnny Tax Payer says:

    I don’t typically agree with Ms Holland, but her question is valid, “I would just ask: when was the last time a highway paid for itself? Holland said.” Why is it that rail, the most efficient means of transporting people by most accounts, is the only transportation option that must be fully self sufficient? Highways, bike paths, airports, bus lines, are all heavily subsidized, but for whatever reason rail must be self sufficient.

  2. palmcoaster says:

    Johnny, nothing is self sufficient..what are you talking about? We pay taxes so the government can build our roads and maintain them and everything else we need service for in our communities or what you call it, “subsidizing”. That is what the taxes we pay for supposed to be invested. See how bad our private medical insurance is, as not subsidized by our taxes, same as our college education, that only the ones that can afford it have access to it? I could imagine that if they want to privatize it all then also our police and firemen will exclude from servicing the ones that can’t afford to pay too. Like some hospitals do today.
    Looks like you criticize the potential subsidizing partial or whole of the transportation system. Well, is a public service. Have you complained of the subsidizing of the Insurer AIG with 180 billion dollars in 2008? Or any of the other so called “financial institutions” bidding the packaged mortgages in Wall Street? That super load of our tax funds (stimulus) sure was not to save or fund any public services….That is what I call one heck of subsidizing! What about stop subsidizing the billions in foreign aid to our “so called allied’s” and also the 8 billion plus a month fighting their wars? Sure 2.4 billion for our transportation pale comparing to those mega billions. I would love to read your rant about that instead. That you do not use public transportation shouldn’t justify that the rest shouldn’t be served.

  3. rickg says:

    It would be great if we subsidized mass transit instead of Big Oil

  4. Art Woosley says:

    Could it be that Governor Scott did some quality homework prior to kicking this train off it’s tracks, possibly getting closer to home than Australia to get the real facts, let’s say the Miami-Dade’s Metrorail system for example ?

    There would not be enough space on this site, to show what that much touted / unused boondoggle has cost, and continues to cost taxpayers. (*check it out for youselves online, articles such as “Taken For A Ride” etc.)

    Be assured that the same old (fat cat) lobbyists, and special interests that are pushing this rail system, are the only people that stand to profit from it. County officials might want to take a step back, chamber aside, and think about their most recent decision very carefully, as they are stepping into this quagmire and taking you the public with them.

    While it is true the cost of gasoline and roads are of significant concern, we must not as they say “jump from the frying pan into the fire”,we need to remember, that when the true costs to the taxpayers are fully realized, it is then too late.

    Cars ,buses, roads, parking lot’s etc. will all still be required as they are in Miami and elsewhere, to enable commuters to get back and forth to the stations.

  5. elaygee says:

    Its all part of the Teabaggers plan to take the country back (into the 1810s)

  6. Kevin says:

    Not to mention the costs of the project and more importantly the gigantic ongoing costs are different, Johnny, than that of a bike path or highway for that matter.

    Elaygee… “Its all part of the Teabaggers plan to take the country back (into the 1810s)” I guess in the dilusional, kool-aid induced fantasy world you reside in, fiscal responsibility and avoiding billion dollar expenditures such as what this project will surely become over time in a state that needs more revenues and less expenses, is something clowns like you moke a tea party member for. What training in investments or accounting leads you to think this is some form of investment vs. the massive expense it will become?

  7. PCer says:

    Having lived in Miami most of my life, MetroRail was a god send for morning and afternoon commuters. I lived in Kendall and frequently had to drive downtown for work. If I drove, it was atleast 2 hours. On MetroRail, it was 45 minutes. If MetroRail had not been built, the thousands of riders who are on it everyday would be on the roads in a car, causing more congestion and more headaches. Sure, it costs the taxpayers money to keep it running but the costs of not having it are much higher. The initial costs of Sun Rail will also be high. But the longrun benefits to both riders and non-riders will be immeasuarable.

  8. palmcoaster says:

    Thank you PCer for clarifying with reality the importance of commuter transit services. Individuals here like Kevin and Woosley do not need to ride mass transit to go to work, then is okay to support the fascist propositions of this new Fl governor. I see it all the time the mistakes at the ballot box of the brainwashed by conservative rhetoric and then the catastrophic results that we all have to endure.
    These big money paid up conservatives just elected, now want to even eliminate and privatize Medicare and also our SS so Wall Street can make bigger bets with our funds and the health insurance companies get to enjoy more billions to profit from giving us the un service in our medical care. Has not been enough to see what privatization investment of our 401 K’s did to our saved funds lately. Most workers don’t even know in what the heck their 401K’s are invested in, or the outrageous service charges the Wall Street boys charge impose those workers for managing them 401K’s.? Worst than that, will take place with the GOP pushed privatization of our Social Security and Medicare and all based in invented lies. Social Security is okay and fine with 2 trillion in the account and would be much better if Congress will vote to refund the 3 trillion stolen from it thru the years to “help the government general fund”. Medicare is fine too if dudes like Rick Scott will be send to jail for profiting form fraud in Medicare while in Columbia.
    This is the social justice we should demand form all these pocket ready for graft representatives, that were elected. When our middle class has to endure these cuts then have all legislators and President salaries and pensions cuts as well including changing their health plant to the same one we most have or the same one that 40 million, do not have!
    Have anyone checked the retirement plans enjoyed by our elected officials? Do so and then after feeling you want to puck, demand justice for all.

  9. Kevin says:

    Sorry PC and Palmcoaster, you’ve stated no facts supporting specifically how it will cost more by not having the rail system. As always, you’ve provide nothing intelligent in terms of concrete facts but instead blather about other ideological issues you cling to.

    Really, addressing who is communicating rhetoric– you both are delusional if you don’t see that all you have stated is nothing but rhetoric and false assumptions. Your belief that more government spending adding more to the financial burdens of others so that a small number (when compared to the whole) of users can have transportation, is good thing is completely illogical. What about the costs to those same users and what they will need after exiting the rail system, do you think they may need transportation once they exit the rail? Probably. What is their cost for a rental car or taxi? What about all the other direct and indirect costs that you haven’t mentioned like those I just did?

    We certainly don’t require it. Florida has indeed survived and thrived without the rail system contrary to your imagination. Again, I simply refer to the rambling passage of thoughts provided by Palmcoaster that have no concrete facts supporting how it is the system is expected to cost more by not having it.

  10. Jack says:

    @Kevin: What exactly would you call your diarrhea filled diatribe then? Rhetoric perhaps?

  11. palmcoaster says:

    Kevin, your “Florida has indeed survived and thrived without the rail system, contrary to… bla bla bla”. Have you ever heard of the name Henry Flagler…?
    Please be advised that without the Flagler rail system the East Coast of Florida would be still undeveloped. I would like to know why individuals like you don’t do an educated research and try to find out or learn. Maybe that is why you didn’t get passing grades in history and social studies, while in school. Go back to school please.

  12. Kevin says:

    Jack–your point was made like a true moron would make it.

    Palmcoaster…comparing the intial expansion of the Flagler to the sun rail system points more to the fact that you still have not indidcated one shred of technical reasoning how it will save money by having it vs. losing money by not having it. In the end, you finish by publishing some nonsensical rubbish about my needing to go back to school for history and social studies dificiencies and a link. Yeah, you’re really a shining star of intellect aren’t you?

  13. Jack says:

    @Kevin: You call me a moron and you spell the word deficiencies with an extra ‘i’, Palmcoaster was right, go back to school.

  14. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Palmcoaster, your comment about Henry Flagler is antithetical to your point, but nicely advances mine and makes reading this website so darn amusing.

    Flagler was a capitalist who didn’t confiscate money from tax payers to build his railroad. You want to build a railroad — go for it — just don’t put your hand in my pocket to do it.

    The host and most commentators here are so immersed in leftwing cant, they wouldn’t know a fact if it bit them on their nether regions.

    The NYT article on Mica being on the take should be taken with a huge grain of salt. He may or he may not, but I sure wouldn’t take the Times take as gospel.

  15. Don says:

    Ten years ago there was talk of a Bus service for Flagler county, what happened? It could have been FLAGLER AREA RAPIT TRANSIT the F. A. R. T. Bus.

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