Florida Guv, a Fair-Weather Friend of Rail, Backs Out of Climate Fight

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), facing a challenge from the right as he stumps for a U.S. Senate seat, is shedding his already shaky environmental credibility as fast as he can.

Charlie_Crist_cropped.jpgFlorida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) (Photo: Sun-Sentinel)
Crist's administration is scrapping efforts to combat climate change and won't be joining a regional carbon cap-and-trade partnership organized by several northeastern states, according to documents released today by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

In a sense, Crist's shift from green crusader to climate action slow-walker was previewed by his handling of Florida's popular but cash-strapped Tri-Rail commuter network.

Tri-Rail has long sought a dedicated funding source to continue its expansion, most likely through a $2 per day tax on rental cars that would also help fund a SunRail commuter system in the Orlando area.

Crist waxed positive about SunRail, but local media reports showed him balking on the rental-car tax -- which died earlier this year in the state senate.

Two local advocacy groups, Safety As Floridians Expect and Citizens for Improved Transit, are working on reviving the tax, but it's hard to see Crist supporting direct funding for Tri-Rail even as he backs away from climate change as a broader issue.

Meanwhile, Crist's choice to warm the Florida Senate seat until the 2010 election faces a similar dilemma of his own. George LeMieux, a longtime Crist counselor, will head to Washington this month with a decent record of environmental stewardship but a heap of pressure to reverse his position.

Just listen to LeMieux talk longingly about the potential of a statewide Florida rail system in May:

“Imagine, if you will, if you wanted to go to Miami to a Heat game or do business or go to court, that you could get on a train right here and go to downtown Miami, or if you wanted to go to [shopping malls] in West Palm,” LeMieux said. “Central Florida was in many ways the kind of precursor for [what many want] to do in South Florida.”

“It really could change the way we live and work,” he said. Ultimately – “this is really dreaming” – a North-South railroad could lead to east-west spurs along Interstate 595, plus northern Broward and two or three in Miami-Dade County.

“One can dream. That would be a much better way of us getting around in South Florida than all of us getting on 95 or the turnpike,” he said.

Late Update: The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has just released a statement calling PEER's information [PDF] -- obtained through Maryland's environment department -- "inaccurate." While declining to commit to action on a state cap-and-trade climate rule in the forthcoming legislative session, Florida DEP Secretary Michael W. Sole said that no decision has been made.

From Sole's statement:

It is unfortunate that a quote was taken out of context and distributed by the State of Maryland as an “official” announcement of Florida’s intentions.

Currently, Florida’s rulemaking efforts are continuing, however, it is unclear as to whether DEP= will be prepared to present a final rule to the 2010 Legislature.  As noted in current law, there are many factors that must be evaluated prior to submittal and the 2010 timeline is the soonest that we would be able to submit. 

DEP is actively following the federal debate and assessing its potential impacts on Florida. Florida’s cap-and-trade rulemaking will continue its work with stakeholders and identify policy initiatives that Florida may wish to advocate for at the state and national level.

It is important to note, that no final decisions on recommendations have been made. All policy options are still under consideration including the decision of whether to join a regional initiative either as a member or an observer. However, the decision of whether to join a regional initiative, such as RGGI [the northeastern states' group], will ultimately rest with the Florida Legislature.