By Chuck Weber
WEST PALM BEACH, FL (WFLX)-A bill essentially saving Tri-Rail, South Florida's commuter rail line, has passed the State Senate and is now headed to the governor.
The vote Tuesday afternoon in Tallahassee was 27 to 10, with senators from both parties joining together to pass the measure. The State House had approved the same legislation the day before.
Along with laying a foundation for high speed rail in the Sunshine State, and establishing a Central Florida commuter train system, the bill also sends Tri-Rail an additional $15 million a year in gas tax money. In the past, lawmakers had failed to provide a permanent funding source for Tri-Rail.
"This gives us some security," said an ecstatic Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons, reached by phone in Tallahassee. Koons chairs the Tri-Rail governing board.
"The three counties in the south end of the state are a very urbanized area," stated Koons. "We look at mass transit providing future options for transportation in South Florida."
Earlier this year the Tri-Rail board had to juggle funds to keep its full operating schedule in place. Board members had contemplated cuts to daily service and elimination of weekend trains altogether.
Tri-Rail spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold said the $15 million a year in the rail bill will allow the line to maintain the status quo. And Commissioner Koons said the newfound security will make it easier for Tri-Rail to seek federal and state money for expansion.
Federal transportation officials had indicated strong commuter rail links were essential for the state to have any chance of obtaining $2.6 billion in stimulus money for high speed rail.
"It's something Floridians have wanted for decades," said Republican Sen. Nancy Detert, of Venice. "But we couldn't afford it. So now we are able to tap into federal funds."
But during the debate, other senators questioned pursuing rail projects now. "I've never seen people hurting like they are," said Sen. Charlie Dean, Republican of Inverness. "It's a good thing. It's the wrong time."