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Bill offers advocates hope for Fla. fast train

(The following article by Bill Rufty was posted on the Lakeland Ledger website on April 30.)

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida High Speed Rail Authority still is chugging along -- slowly -thanks to a bill that cleared the House and Senate on Thursday, and its fate will be decided one way or the other by the end of the year.

By December, either the amendment voters passed in 2000 authorizing high-speed rail will have been repealed, in which case supporters of the bullet train likely will take Gov. Jeb Bush to court, or construction money will begin to flow.

Supporters are hopeful a new Senate president and a new speaker of the House will make a difference.

"High-speed rail will do much better under Sen. (Tom) Lee and Rep. (Allan) Bense," Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said, referring to the incoming president and speaker respectively.

Dockery's bill, which repealed sales tax exemptions for some bullet train-related businesses, opened the way for the authority to get at least a little money this year. It was incorporated into the main transportation bill.

Last year, Gov. Bush referred to the sales tax exemptions when he vetoed $7 million in state funding for high-speed rail.

"We have removed the specific reason the governor gave for his veto, so I would expect this year's funds to go through," Dockery said.

The new bill allows only contractors of the rail system to be eligible for a sales tax exemption for materials.

In the state budget is $5 million for studies and plans for stations along the first phase of the route from Orlando International Airport to downtown Tampa. In addition to stations at the two ends, stations have been approved for Celebration and Lakeland near Kathleen Road and I-4.

The budget also allows the authority to spend the $4 million allotted to it from federal transportation funds, earmarked for finishing engineering plans for the first leg.

But there is no money to begin construction or legislation to allow the authority to sell bonds to fund the estimated $1.7 billion to $2.2 billion project.

Bush opposes the project, saying voters didn't realize the expense when they approved it in 2000. He's asked Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher to lead a petition drive to put the issue back on the ballot.

In the meantime, the Florida High Speed Rail authority is still meeting monthly.

The main champion of highspeed rail in the Florida House is Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, and his position on the project is one of many factors in his being on the outs with Speaker of the House Johnnie Byrd. Ross said the next session of the Legislature could be the turning point for high-speed rail.

"You are going to find under Allan Bense a willingness to listen and to consider the issue of bonding for the construction," Ross said.

But now it seems the only bend in the track for the bullet train is whether the amendment goes back on the ballot.

Friday, April 30, 2004

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