Amtrak backed off its demands Wednesday for an ironclad insurance deal with SunRail, clearing the tracks for the Central Florida commuter train to roll again toward a startup in 2013.
The national carrier dropped its opposition to the $1.2 billion project during an hourlong meeting in the office of U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Among those in attendance was U.S. Rep. John Mica, R- Winter Park, soon to be chairman of the powerful transportation committee that oversees funding for Amtrak.
"I think with a change in the winds … it avoids a lot of heartburn," Mica said.
Mica would not say whether he and LaHood pressured Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman into ending the stalemate. Boardman also attended the meeting, along with U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D- Jacksonville, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and assorted state and federal officials.
In return for dropping its opposition, Amtrak received a pledge from Mica, Brown, Dyer and the state to lobby the Florida Legislature into approving an insurance deal that would cover the national passenger carrier in case one of its trains collides with SunRail.
That offer was made months ago, but Amtrak wanted a firm promise that it would happen. State officials and legislators said they could not guarantee any outcome, particularly one concerning as contentious an issue as SunRail.
The train failed in its first two attempts to get through the Legislature, only winning on a third try during a special session a year ago.
Amtrak officials wouldn't comment but issued a statement saying it had "long supported the SunRail project."
'Long and difficult'
Dyer, who was the first to report that an agreement had been reached with Amtrak on Wednesday, said by phone from Washington that it was important to have all the key players in the SunRail negotiations together in one room.
"Getting to this point has been a long and difficult process," Dyer said. "But it's important to remember that securing these types of game-changing projects that create benefits for generations to come is rarely an easy task."
Amtrak, which had been talking with Florida about its concerns since late 2007, had virtually halted work on SunRail by lodging an objection with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. That meant SunRail supporters could not seek the $300 million the federal government had indicated was set aside for the train.
The decision also means that FDOT can set up an escrow account to purchase the tracks upon which the train will run. FDOT is in charge of building the 61-mile system and operating it for the first seven years.
If Amtrak had refused to budge, SunRail supporters would have been forced to renegotiate new operating agreements after the first of the year. That would have meant another round of votes in Orange, Volusia, Seminole and Osceola counties, plus the cities of Orlando and Winter Park, where there is some opposition to SunRail.
Amtrak wants SunRail to take care of its passengers and equipment in case of an accident on the shared tracks, regardless of blame, while Amtrak would cover its expenses.
That's the same deal the Legislature approved last year between SunRail and CSX, the Jacksonville freight company that intends to sell its tracks to the state for the commuter train at a total cost of $600 million, including improvements made to another rail line and a road.
State Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said he would push for an Amtrak pact and pointed out that incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, are backers of SunRail.
"I think the Legislature has proven its willingness to move forward," said Gardiner, who said he is confident lawmakers would vote for the project, although he would not say when. Lawmakers aren't scheduled to convene again until March.
Once SunRail is up and running, all three train operations would share portions of the system. Construction could begin this spring.
Dan Tracy can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5444.
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