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.
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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.