A Congressman's Pet Project; a Railroad's Boon

Published Tuesday, June 28, 2011 12:00 pm
by: Eric Litpon
Source: NY Times

ORLANDO, Fla. — Here in sun-parched Central Florida, workers are ready to break ground this summer for a 61-mile commuter rail project that the federal government ranks as one of the least cost-effective mass transit efforts in the nation.

Mr. Mica, shown in Orlando in April, proposed the SunRail system in 1992 after he won his first race for the House. The system has drawn criticism for its cost and its low projected ridership.                           
 With a price tag of $1.2 billion at completion, the rail line is expected to serve just 2,150 commuters a day when it starts operating in three years. It will not link to the Orlando airport or Disney World, among the region’s biggest traffic generators. Florida’s governor is even considering killing the project, worried that local government officials will rebel if they have to cover any shortfalls at the fare box.       

 But the so-called SunRail project has survived, at least so far, a testament to the ability of one congressman to help push through hundreds of millions of dollars in federal spending, even at a time of deep concern over ballooning federal deficits.       

Representative John L. Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has spent years badgering federal agencies, bullying state officials, blocking Amtrak naysayers and trying to bypass federal restrictions to build support and squash opposition to the commuter line.       

 While Congress is often stalled or bitterly divided in dealing with some of the biggest issues facing the nation, its members are often remarkably successful in promoting industries or more parochial concerns. Mr. Mica’s championing of the SunRail project has won praise among many officials and business leaders here, who say it is vital to the future of the traffic-clogged region.       

 But skeptics question whether Mr. Mica’s real goal is to give a taxpayer-financed gift to CSX, the freight rail giant and a generous Mica campaign donor, which would get $432 million for its tracks and for upgrades to tracks it owns elsewhere in the state. Other Florida businesses close to Mr. Mica also stand to benefit if the project is built.       

 “His dedication to SunRail is not for mass transit — it is for helping CSX to get government funds for its private freight lines,” said State Senator Paula Dockery, a Republican and a chief critic of the project.       

 The congressman is unapologetic about SunRail. “Everybody has different vested interests,” Mr. Mica said in an interview. “But you look at what is being proposed on paper, and it just make sense.”       

 Mr. Mica first proposed the commuter system in 1992 after he won his first race for the House after a career that included stints as a real estate developer, a lobbyist and chief of staff to Senator Paula Hawkins, Republican of Florida. The CSX track, which for decades has also been used by Amtrak, already connects a string of communities north and south of Orlando. Commuter rail, Mr. Mica argued, could carry many more passengers and be far less costly than adding a single lane to an Interstate highway.       

 “For as long as I have been in Congress, Central Florida has been sending its mass transit money to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and now to other cities — that is where our gas tax dollars have gone,” he said.       

 But getting even a small fraction of the 2.3 million people living along the rail corridor to ride trains may be difficult, state officials acknowledge. Separating drivers from their cars would be like forcing Mickey and Minnie Mouse to divorce.       

 The federal government, wary of financing boondoggle projects, has strict rules on how ridership projections are calculated. Florida’s Department of Transportation, mindful of Mr. Mica’s keen interest, looked for ways to push up the number of projected riders, efforts that federal regulators found dubious.       

 Florida officials, for example, assumed that large numbers of commuters heading from one point in the suburbs to another would be willing to undertake a bus-to-rail-to-bus trip, a travel pattern that federal officials told them “cannot be found on any existing commuter rail service in the United States.”       

 Mr. Mica describes himself as a fiscal conservative, arguing that “all taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects must be wise investments.” But he has pulled strings in Washington to get special consideration for the project.       

 That included at least $4 million in federal earmarks he lined up to buy the first rail cars for the project — at least a decade before any trains would run. The federal grants, approved in 2003, effectively forced Florida officials to buy experimental rail cars — now temporarily in use in Miami — from a Colorado company whose top executive has been a campaign contributor to Mr. Mica.       

 In 2008, Mr. Mica helped insert language into a federal highway bill that, at least in SunRail’s case, eliminated a Bush administration ban on federal financing for rail projects that did not meet certain cost-effectiveness standards. The Obama administration has since eased the eligibility rules, clearing the way for federal support for the project.       

 “He has been the single, clarion voice for commuter rail in central Florida for 20 years,” said Mayor Ken Bradley of Winter Park.       

 But opposition had started to brew around Central Florida, including in Mr. Mica’s hometown of Winter Park. Beth Dillaha, a former regional manager at a vitamin store chain, had never been involved in politics but was disturbed at what she heard.       

 The 61-mile project would be built in two phases, the first covering 31 miles mostly north of Orlando. During most of the day, the train would run only every two hours, with no weekend service. Even during rush hour, it would run only every 30 minutes. Initially, it is expected to serve 4,300 riders a day (about 2,150 commuters taking round trips).       

 If fares do not cover operating costs after seven years, Winter Park and other communities with stations, which will already subsidize the construction of the system, would be required to make up any revenue shortfalls.       

 “This is basically an open checkbook,” Ms. Dillaha said. Questions were also raised by some Florida officials and Amtrak about who would cover the insurance damages if there were an accident. Ms. Dillaha, who was inspired to run for a seat on the Winter Park City Commission, and other critics grew even more skeptical as they examined the plan more closely.       

 Campaign finance records show that many of the contractors that worked on the project, including an engineering firm, Parsons Brinckerhoff, have been major contributors to Mr. Mica’s re-election campaigns. So have businesses and individuals who could benefit from the project, including ICI Homes, a real estate developer that owns several sites close to a proposed SunRail station, and Florida Hospital in Orlando, whose $250 million expansion plan is contingent on getting a station on its property.       

 Executives at ICI Homes, or their relatives, have contributed nearly $70,000 to Mr. Mica over the last decade. An additional $35,000 in donations have come from staff members and lawyers at GrayRobinson, a Florida law firm lobbying for the project.       

 The most pointed questions have been raised about the $432 million deal with CSX. Florida officials agreed to let the freight company use the tracks it would sell to SunRail for its own trains at night. They also committed to pay for improvements to a second freight rail line owned by CSX, which would shift freight traffic in Florida to a more rural route, allowing more freight trains to run at a faster speed. Because of cost overruns, that deal might ultimately cost the state an estimated $640 million.       

 Ms. Dockery, who led efforts to at least temporarily block state financing for the SunRail project, has suggested that Mr. Mica has, all along, been seeking to help CSX.       

 Mr. Mica, in an interview, said he realized that the package would help the freight company, which is based in Jacksonville. The company’s executives, including Michael J. Ward, its chairman, have donated nearly $60,000 personally or through the company to Mr. Mica and his political causes in the last decade. But both Mr. Mica and a CSX spokesman disputed any suggestion that the package was a sweetheart deal for the company.       

 “Obviously, they get a benefit,” Mr. Mica said. “But this is one of the best deals I have seen for the taxpayers.”       

 Federal transit officials — after at first expressing open skepticism about SunRail — have recently grown more supportive. The project is still ranked last in cost effectiveness by the federal Department of Transportation among all projects in final design in the country. But SunRail ranks better in other categories, including its potential to drive economic development and improve the region’s air quality, giving it an overall “medium” rating that allows for federal support.       

 Still, Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, a businessman who drew Tea Party support, came into office in January unconvinced that the project was worthwhile.       

 He froze four contracts, worth a total of $235 million, to build rail stations and buy the first full fleet of rail cars and locomotives. He also put off the payment to CSX for its tracks, pending a final decision expected this week.       

 Mr. Mica has campaigned hard to win over the governor, meeting with him and soliciting local government officials to reiterate their support for the project. He also hinted that he might hold up other federal aid, telling a radio news reporter in April that money for dredging the Miami port might be at risk.       

 “I get to authorize the project for the deepening at the federal level,” Mr. Mica said. “Right now I’m studying them very closely, as the governor is studying the rail project very closely.”       

 Mr. Mica said he was determined, one way or another, to get the trains running. “I am like the guy with the broom and the shovel at the end of the parade,” he said, “trying to keep it moving.”       

Kitty Bennett contributed research.