Due to the recent media attention surrounding the Central Florida Commuter Rail Legislation being debated in Tallahassee, I’d like to take this opportunity to reaffirm the Chamber’s position to our members, our friends, and the citizens of our community on the various issues of CSX, freight traffic in our downtown corridor, as well as commuter rail.
Our work on the CSX issue began back in 2006. As many of you know, the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce (LACC), in partnership with the City of Lakeland, the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, and other community stakeholders, extensively studied the impact of the proposed CSX ILC project in Winter Haven. A Lakeland CSX Task Force was formed at that time to address the issue of increased freight traffic through Lakeland as a result of this project. The group met with CSX, the Florida Department of Transportation(FDOT), the Department of Community Affairs and local and state elected officials to learn how best to protect Lakeland from the negative effects of additional freight moving through our city.
The Chamber’s position was concisely presented in a Resolution adopted by our Board of Directors in February 2008, and states:
“The Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce recommends that the FDOT fund and conduct a complete and meaningful feasibility study to identify the most efficient and cost effective alternatives for development of a statewide commuter and intercity rail plan, including specific steps, projects, timelines and required funding for implementation.
Furthermore, the LACC recommends that the FDOT undertake a comprehensive statewide analysis of freight rail corridors to identify alternatives for the “Super Freight Rail Highway” specifically for the routing of freight traffic away from existing urban areas and their respective future growth boundaries to minimize conflicts between freight rail, vehicle, truck and pedestrian crossing movements and related urban development.”
Our position has not changed and we maintain our resolve as summarized above.
It became clear to those of us studying the issue in detail that any successful rail strategy would, by definition, need to be regional in its scope and perspective due to the inherent complexity and scale of rail projects themselves. Lakeland officials began meeting in 2008 with business representatives from Orlando and Tampa through a group termed the Super Regional Strategy Team. It was immediately clear to us that the communities to our east in the Orlando area, as well as the communities to our west in the Tampa Bay area, had coalesced separately and formulated effective, regional rail strategies for the benefit of their regions. All the while, the Central Florida region had not yet even begun to think regionally on this topic. It quickly became apparent that unless we, the Central Florida region, worked together in a collaborative manner to develop a regional and statewide transportation plan, no one area would be successful in its short or long-term transportation goals.
Understanding this gaping need, we took action. As a result of efforts on the part of many, including the LACC, stakeholders representing the Lakeland, Polk County, Tampa and Orlando areas agreed to support both the Central Florida SunRail Commuter Rail project, as well as the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) transportation plan. Likewise the leaders from both the SunRail and TBARTA organizations agreed to support legislation that would relocate freight rail traffic around Lakeland and other impacted urban areas in the Central Florida regions.
The Chamber’s lobbying efforts this legislative session have focused on the inclusion of the “Lakeland Language” in Senate Bill 1212 and House Bill 7009. In a letter sent to members of the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee on Monday, April 20, I, as Chairman of the LACC, urged the Committee to support the proposed language and amendments that have been advanced by Lakeland that:
- Require FDOT’s assistance to work closely with affected communities to identify and address impacts with increased freight traffic;
- Finalize the FDOT District 1 Rail Traffic Evaluation Study and require the FDOT to commence a Project Development and Environmental (PD&E) Study so that a preferred re-routing alternative can be identified that minimizes the impact of freight rail traffic in the urban corridor;
- Requires the preferred alternative, with a priority ranking from the Polk Transportation Planning Organization, or its successor, to be programmed for funding in the department’s work program in a fiscal year no later that 10 years from commencement of construction of the CSX Winter Haven ILC; and
- Adequately addresses the LACC’s stated desire for continued focus on regional connectivity of passenger and freight systems in the Central Florida region.
It is important for Chamber members to know that the LACC has not wavered in our view that the ultimate goal is to move the freight rail out of our downtown corridor and to mitigate the negative impacts of the CSX ILC to our community. We must continue to support the development of a regional commuter rail system and we will continue to partner with our Central Florida friends and stakeholders to build a shared regional growth plan.
The LACC will continue to keep members updated on this important issue as it moves through Session. House Bill 7009 and Senate Bill 1212 have been placed on their respective Chamber’s calendars and are waiting to be heard on the floor.