September 12, 2007

Another "devious plan" hits the fast rail

In a deal to bring commuter rail to central Florida and take hundreds of cars off the road in congested Orlando, Gov. Jeb Bush and CSX railroad last year announced the sale of tracks for $491 million in taxpayer money.

Bush touted the deal as a strong public-private partnership, though he brokered the plan in secret with no public discussion of the downside.

To make the deal work, CSX must move its Orlando operations to a new hub in Winter Haven, a move the company claims would benefit the state's ports and bring skilled and well-paying jobs to the region.

But the new hub also would put more freight trains on tracks through downtown Lakeland and Plant City, which could severely disrupt neighborhoods, traffic and redevelopment efforts. It also would add more than 1,000 trucks a day to Polk County's roads.

The backroom deal began in December 2004, a month after voters defeated the bullet train. As reporters Lindsay Peterson and Billy Townsend tell it, CSX visited the Department of Transportation and unveiled a new business strategy for Florida. The state adopted the railroad's plan: Taxpayers would pay for road access to the Winter Haven hub and help CSX upgrade its Polk freight line to handle more traffic. And we also would pay for 61 miles of track around Orlando.

Meanwhile, Florida East Coast Industries, which owns a north-south rail corridor on Florida's east coast and had previously rebuffed state attempts to buy its corridors, also began talking to the state.

As talks ensued, a group of private equity investors offered $3.5 billion for FEC. It appears the negotiations raised the value of the railroad and its real estate holdings. Bush supporter and former employer Armando Codina made $250 million in the deal.

What to make of all this?

Neither Bush nor CSX executives are talking. Given the deal's enormous impact on our region and state, both owe Floridians more than silence.

Perhaps it's to the state's advantage to allow the hub. Winter Haven city leaders surely want it. But it looks like this deal was put together primarily to benefit CSX, a major political contributor to Bush, his family and friends.
- Tampa Tribune

There's more . . . .

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