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Beer giant out to derail Fla. high speed train

(The following article by Bertrand Marotte was posted on the Globe and Mail website on April 19.)

MONTREAL -- U.S. beer giant Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. has joined the forces arrayed against Bombardier Inc.'s proposed Florida high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando.

Anheuser-Busch, brewer of the global Budweiser brand, is arguing that a bullet train would end up being a drag on state finances and a costly move in the wrong direction, according to recent reports.

The company is backing a state political action committee — Derail the Bullet Train — trying to repeal a state commitment to the rail system. Florida Governor Jeb Bush — brother of U.S. President George W. Bush — and Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, oppose the project on grounds it could turn into a boondoggle.

Montreal-based Bombardier and its partner, California engineering firm Fluor Corp., are negotiating with the Florida High Speed Rail Authority to design, build, operate and maintain the 144-kilometre Tampa-Orlando line, the first link in a proposed statewide bullet-train network.

The estimated cost of the initial link, which would stop at Walt Disney World, is about $2.6-billion (U.S.).

Rail proponents say Anheuser-Busch's opposition is just sour grapes because the High Speed Rail Authority opted last year in favour of a line that would stop at Disney World rather than in the vicinity of the brewer's SeaWorld theme park.

"I think what we're seeing is that some interests who favoured a different route are now lining up with those who are opposed" to the link, said Lecia Stewart, vice-president of high-speed rail in North America for Bombardier.

"It's an unfortunate and divisive debate. Those theme parks are obviously competing very aggressively for market share."

Bombardier submitted both the Walt Disney World and the SeaWorld routes for its gas-turbine-powered JetTrain but the authority chose the first over the latter, she said. Another theme park, Universal Studios Florida, is located not far from SeaWorld. Both Anheuser-Busch and Universal have financially contributed to the anti-rail-link effort, according to the Tampa Tribune.

"I think this is really a debate about whether there should be a station here or three miles from here," Ms. Stewart said.

Bombardier and Fluor are aiming for a July 1 target date for a initial agreement on the terms and conditions of the rail project, she added.

But the proposal could end up going off the rails if Mr. Bush and fellow opponents win in their attempt to get the issue on the ballot in the November elections. They need about 490,000 signatures by August in order to ask voters to repeal the state's commitment to the project. So far, they have failed to win the two-thirds approval in the state legislature required to get on a statewide ballot.

Mr. Bush has stated his preference for highway improvements and questioned the authority's ridership and revenue projections.

The Bombardier-Fluor proposal calls for the state to provide $75-million annually for 35 years, with an eventual payback of $526-million from a revenue-sharing plan.

Mr. Bush already killed a high-speed rail proposal — in 1999 — that had Bombardier involvement.

However, Florida entrepreneur Charles (Doc) Dockery won a campaign financed with about $3-million of his own money to get the initiative on the ballot in November, 2000.

Floridians approved the constitutional amendment by a 53-per-cent vote.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

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