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Fla. fast train proponents cite benefits

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Jackie Hallifax on June 22.)

TALLAHASSEE -- A high-speed train will make money for Florida in the long run, proponents said Tuesday as a panel of state analysts begin looking at a proposal to kill the voter-approved project.

On the other hand, if a petition drive to kill the project is successful, Florida will lose tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity, according to an economist working for supporters of the train.

Tim Lynch, director of the Center for Economic Analysis at Florida State University, looked at recent research into the costs and benefits of highspeed rail.

Three Florida studies since 1997 all predict several billion dollars in net benefits, Lynch told the state analysts.

The analysts will try to assess the potential cost of a proposed constitutional amendment to repeal the high-speed rail project.

Voters in 2000 approved a ballot measure ordering the state to build a high-speed train. The first leg of the proposed rail network would run from Orlando to Tampa and construction could begin next summer. The plan is for the train to eventually connect Orlando with Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Gov. Jeb Bush, a persistent and loud critic, and Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher want to get voters to repeal the provision with a ballot measure they are trying to get on the November ballot. They say the state cannot afford the train.

The state would commit $75 million a year under the plan prepared by Fluor Bombardier, the private group that is negotiating a contract with the state to design, build and operate the train.

Fluor Bombardier has said Florida will reap $2.3 billion in profit after the train is up and running and the costs have been recouped.

Derail the Bullet Train, the campaign to repeal the project, needs half a million verified signatures by early August to make the November ballot. The state Division of Elections put the campaign's total at 95,579 on Tuesday.

The campaign didn't make a presentation to the state analysts. But Bush, who has called the train's projected costs extraordinary, said later Tuesday he didn't think high-speed rail would be viable for the next decade.

"It's possible 30 years from now that with new technologies high-speed rail will be cost-effective and an important part of our transportation system," Bush said. But the Lakeland businessman who spearheaded the 2000 petition drive that led to the train project said Tuesday he was very optimistic the train would survive Bush and other critics.

"Three million Floridians voted for it four years ago," C.C. "Doc" Dockery said. "I think those 3 million Floridians knew what they were doing."

Rising gas prices and frustration with congestion on Florida's highways will just generate more support if the issue makes the ballot, Dockery said.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

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