Commuter deal faces rocky climb

Published: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 12:15 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - The future of a commuter rail in Central Florida grew shakier Wednesday over a controversial liability dispute, when one of the project's strongest supporters abruptly decided lawmakers would not vote on having the $641 million deal proceed.

Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, said the liability issue could be shelved for now but would have to be enacted by lawmakers before the trains could roll.

Senators were scheduled for a showdown vote Wednesday on a bill containing dozens of unrelated changes to law. The move to exempt CSX Transportation from legal liability for passengers on commuter trains on a proposed 61.5 mile line from DeLand to Poinciana was by far the most controversial.

Under the deal reached last year, the state would bear responsibility for damages to commuter passengers and equipment from accidents on the shared commuter and freight line - regardless of who was at fault.

CSX would still cover damage to its employees and equipment.

CSX and Florida Department of Transportation officials have said the legal protection was needed before the deal could be finalized. But with growing unrest over the specter of Florida taxpayers paying for CSX negligence, Webster said the project could proceed without lawmakers doing anything this year.

"I think the liability issue is dead,'' said Webster, as he lashed out at what he perceived as meddling in a local issue.

If lawmakers fail to agree to the "no-fault'' plan, a DOT official said the entire project would collapse.

"We are not authorized to enter into the agreement without the legislation,'' she said.

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