April 30, 2008

Florida's CSX rail plan: Do it right or not at all

(This is my response to a progressive thinker and commuter rail proponent who resides in the Orlando area. In view of the many positive aspects of the deal, he suggested that we would have blood on our hands if we killed it.)

'To rail or not to rail' is not the question

It's understandable that progressives from both sides of this issue view the problems and solutions from their own perspectives. From everything I have seen, though, I believe that the CSX rail deal offers a false choice between a faulty plan and no plan at all. When I see the bills that are being force-fed through legislative appropriations committees, I hear Stevie Wonder's "Here I am, baby; signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours." The only options seem to be, take it or bend over and take it.

Regarding this rail plan, or any other, I have never suggested that "we abandon it altogether." Neither has anyone that I know in Lakeland. Like many cities over the past two decades, Lakeland (an urban area of 255,000, but known to the Orlando Sentinel only as the quaint Orlampa) - has spent millions of dollars revitalizing its downtown, building parks, saving historic architecture, encouraging responsible development including business and housing, even constructing an Amtrak/passenger rail station in the heart of downtown and providing leadership for a much more comprehensive approach to rail travel than the one on the table today (for example, see Bullet Train News). The city's approach to growth management and revitalization is what led me to buy a home in the historic district nearly twenty years ago, and I have not regretted it. (Obviously, I was not expecting to inherit Orlando's headaches.)

As a seventh-generation Floridian, I share your passion for protecting the environment and developing alternative energy sources. I have watched the gradual (and not so gradual in some cases) destruction of the state I always loved and thought I would never leave. But Florida no longer belongs to me and people like me - it belongs to developers, politicians, the NRA and carpetbaggers. And CSX Corp.

So for me the debate is not over whether Orlando should have commuter rail, but how both federal and Florida taxpayer dollars should best be appropriated to reach the goals that both of us agree need to be achieved. Any time a deal between government officials and private industry is cooked up in secret - including the need for signed confidentiality agreements - alarms should be tripped.

Artificial linkages

Before this deal saw the light of day, it was polished to a shimmering brilliance, of course. Commuter rail for Orlando may indeed be a good thing, but that's only one facet of this legislative gem. Getting rid of the rail and hub problem - not to be overlooked as a driving force behind the deal - is good for Orlando, we can agree. Trains in the area were a problem as far back as the early 1970's. Three decades later, the problems have increased significantly. In 2002, an Orlando-based planning group produced a paper titled: "Why Can't We Solve Orlando's Traffic Congestion Problems By Moving the Freight Trains?"

For good reason, then, mass transit is an easy sell in Orlando. But the CSX deal doesn't stop there. A crucial facet for CSX is a new logistics center to be built on 1250 acres in Winter Haven. That may be a good thing for Winter Haven's tax base and some members of the community (except for nearby homeowners or people who drive passenger cars on the same roads), but whether the site is the most appropriate location within the region is open to question. In a state the size of Florida, with millions of undeveloped acres, why here, why now? Was it in the public interest, or in the financial interests of CSX and certain developers and landowners? How much consideration was given to alternative sites north of Interstate 4 or in southern Polk County, using routes that would bypass major cities? Was any consideration given to old rail right-of-ways that may be only slightly less convenient than the "S" line down the center of the state and through the center of Lakeland? (See "Rails to Trails," for example.)

Follow the money

Consider the secrecy surrounding the initial negotiations and legislation in 2005; the rush to bypass local and regional impact studies on the Winter Haven rail hub and other impacted towns; the pressure on legislators for funding during "the worst government budget conditions in Florida's history"; the secret involvement of Jeb Bush and his appointees with this deal as well as the Florida East Coast Industries deal that benefitted his friends; the profit motives of politician-landowners, other major landowners, businesses and developers in Polk County and surrounding counties; the lack of timely regional and state planning necessary for development on a massive scale; the possible loss or indefinitely extended delays of commuter rail between Tampa and Orlando, and other cities; the future expansion of "the mother of all rail hubs" to accept containerized cargo coming from the US west coast and Asia through an expanded Panama Canal; transportation of increased cargo from Latin and South America through the Winter Haven ILC, Central Florida and outward in all directions via a proposed airport, expanded rail extensions to the gulf coast and points north, and new highways, including the proposed Central Polk Parkway and Heartland Parkway.

With the proposed deal, who are the major beneficiaries - Florida's taxpayers or special interests?

Avoid a stampede mentality

In addition to the up-front and long-term costs to the state and federal government - and not ignoring the proposed liability costs to the state - no one has calculated the hidden but very real financial, environmental and quality-of-life costs to a number of impacted communities. Demanding the acceptance of one option, with no comprehensive long-range planning, environmental and infrastructure impact studies, or involvement of the most direly affected communities, should be unacceptable in this state - the state of "government in the sunshine." Evidently it is not.

Too often, people without the time to study the issues are misled by politicians and vested interests. This deal is the perfect example. To accept the claim that it's the only plan on the table, so we should get on with it even if some of us are adversely affected (an understatement in itself), is not good public policy. We've been burned too many times by politicians relying on the stampede mentality. If this deal is important to Florida, it should be fixed before - not after - it is dragged and pushed through the 2008 legislature. What's worth doing is worth doing right.

We should not allow ourselves to be rushed into an artificial lumping together - with too few answers to major questions - mass transportation, freight transportation, energy demands and environmental concerns. We must not accept vague generalities and worthless promises from the crowd that has been less than forthcoming from the start - the same crowd that got us into the mess we're already in. It can always get worse.

And we shouldn't be overly concerned about "having blood on our hands," as you suggested, in the event that the deal is delayed until its backers are forced to correct its most glaring flaws. What I worry about is cutting funding for education, when Florida is already ranked near the bottom in the country. I worry about cutting crucial services to the sick and infirm, the young and the old. I worry about many things gone wrong in Florida.

I don't worry so much about whether someone will be driving a Prius or riding a train from Deland to Winter Park in 2012.

[Photo: WFTV News, Orlando, Feb. 13, 2008, Tuesday. Eyewitness News timed the CSX train sitting on the tracks along South Street. It didn't move for 30 minutes.]

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