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More up-front funds for Fla. bullet train sought

(The Associated Press distributed the following article on May 18.)

ORLANDO -- A stark warning that the voter-mandated state bullet train may never roll for lack of funding prompted the Florida High Speed Rail Authority to ask its contractor Monday for more money up front.

And to hedge bets if that assistance isn't coming to build the rail network, the authority pondered reopening the bidding process between the contractor it selected, Fluor-Bombardier, and runner-up Global Rail Consortium.

The system's first leg, connecting Orlando and Tampa, has a price tag of $2.6 billion, so the authority is trying to save money wherever it can while proving the project is still viable in the face of apathy or hostility from state and federal lawmakers.

"I recognize that with the current state of affairs, we're probably dead and don't know it," said authority chairman Fred Dudley. "And anything we can do to keep this alive is helpful in the long run."

Dudley's ominous words were an echo of what state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, said at the beginning of the meeting.

"I truly believe that high- speed rail, if not dead, is on life support," said Sebesta, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. He said the authority could save the project by coming up with funding within 90 days.

Sebesta has issued similar dire forecasts almost since Florida's voters approved the amendment in 2000.

The authority seemed to take the warning to heart this time, although its only action was to give Fluor-Bombardier 30 days to detail its proposed contributions.

Authority member Leila Nodarse, upon hearing a Fluor-Bombardier representative repeat its offer of a $50 million letter of credit and $250 million in bonds, replied: "That's all on the back end, but what we're saying is there's not going to be a back end."

The episode didn't please the contractor, whose leader called the meeting's discussions "troubling."

"The question I would ask is, is the authority going to put the same request to the state of Florida for their funding contributions?" said Lecia Stewart, Bombardier's vice president for high-speed rail in North America.

Authority member C.C. "Doc" Dockery, who spent $3 million getting the concept on the 2000 ballot, said he has personally lobbied the state countless times, with mixed results.

But Dockery said the next two senators in line to be that body's president are more receptive than the outgoing Jim King.

"Certainly, the governor can veto the next two budgets," Dockery said. "But I just had a physical and the doctor tells me, unless I get run over by Jeb (Bush), and he may, I think I'll live for two more years."

In a sign of the authority's growing concern, there was consideration of allowing a rejected contractor back into the process. Global Rail asked for a second chance in an April 28 letter that pointed out how the project has been delayed.

Fluor-Bombardier earned the authority's nod as contractor last October, impressing the panel with its sound financial footing and its experience providing the trains for Amtrak's Acela route in the Northeast Corridor.

But Global Rail, a South Korean-led consortium, said it can offer more, beginning with a technology package -- electric trains running on a double track -- of what the authority wanted in the first place.

Fluor-Bombardier's bid began with diesel locomotives on a single track, and authority member Bill Dunn has said the price could grow by $800 million if the contractor acquiesces to the authority's wishes.

"We would've preferred to enter into simultaneous negotiations," said Katherine Beck, managing member of Global Rail. "But a 30-day delay won't upset our schedule."

The meeting also marked the debut of British conglomerate Virgin into the list of companies trying to get in on the state's rail system.

If the project ever gets off the drawing board, and Fluor-Bombardier is the contractor, running the trains would be Virgin -- a leader in European passenger rail service.

Virgin is experienced with Florida transportation issues, as its airline brings the most international passengers to Orlando and Miami.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

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