Conservative Tea Party Movement Targets Florida Rail Plan

The conservative "tea party" movement, last seen complaining about the government-funded local transit system that they took during an anti-government march in Washington D.C, is veering back to form in Florida with an organized protest against the state's proposal for broad new investments in rail transit.

image4947654x.jpgThe "Tea Party" is now a registered political party in Florida. (Photo: CBS)
The Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), one of three national conservative groups driving the "tea party" effort, has asked its members to protest on Monday in Tallahassee.

The date coincides with an anticipated state House vote on rail legislation with multiple goals: setting up guaranteed funding for South Florida's popular but cash-strapped Tri-Rail, authorizing a similar commuter network called SunRail in Central Florida, and creating two new agencies to oversee a potential state-wide high-speed rail system.

The Orlando Sentinel reported a statement from Adam Guillette, director of AFP in Florida:

This train boondoggle is the wrong proposal at the wrong time. Our legislature should focus on ways to cut wasteful spending, not increase it!

According to the Sentinel, AFP's anti-rail protest is set to feature a high-profile guest: state senator and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Paula Dockery, who helped kill an earlier incarnation of the Florida commuter rail plan in 2008.

Dockery describes herself as a rail proponent, but claims that the current legislation would generate excessive profits for CSX, the freight company that controls more than 60 miles of rail tracks slated for purchase by the state. Still, her rhetorical approach to attacking the Florida rail bill appears straight out of Washington's pro-roads playbook.

The Miami Herald yesterday transcribed the following exchange between Dockery and fellow state senators who support the rail plan:

Dockery: In 2008, Tri-Rail brought in $9 million. What was the operating deficit that local governments needed to make up?

Sen. Jeremy Ring: I believe government needed to make up $46 million. The whole operating impact was $57 million. Mr. Chair, I have a question: I would like to know where we’re going with this? Roads cost money as well. Mr. Chair, I just don’t know where we’re going. This is not a quiz. This is not a multiple-choice quiz. ...

Dockery: Mr. Chairman, you are selling this bill on creating jobs and economic development. And I’m asking questions to show that our one and only existing rail service not only did not create a lot of jobs, but also is operating at a deficit 20 years later with a 15,000 ridership -- whereas the system that you’re trying to build now only has an estimated 3,500 ridership.

Dockery won praise from the Herald for her rail knowledge, but her data on SunRail ridership projections was incorrect; the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) estimates that opening-day ridership on the Central Florida system would reach 4,300. In addition, FTA models for predicting light rail ridership have proven unreliably low in Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Houston.