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Price tag for Florida high-speed train cut in half

(The Associated Press distributed the following article on August 13.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- State analysts on Thursday cut in half the amount of money the state would save if voters killed the high speed rail project.

They estimated the state could save up to $25 billion over 30 years if the project were derailed, down from their original forecast of up to $51 billion last month.

Voters in 2000 approved a ballot measure to build a high-speed train linking the state's five major urban areas. On Nov. 2, they'll face another ballot measure, championed by Gov. Jeb Bush, to repeal the project. Bush argues the state cannot afford the train.

Under state law, a panel of analysts estimates the financial impact that citizen initiatives going before voters will have on state and local government.

A brief statement describing the impact that is produced by the analysts, who work for the Legislature and the governor, will go on the ballot. But first it's got to be approved by the state Supreme Court.

The first statement prepared by the panel would have told voters that repealing the project could save Florida between $41 billion and $52 billion over the next 30 years. The statement also measures that savings in per-household terms, ranging from $157 to $190 a year for three decades.

Last week, Florida's high court rejected the statement, saying it went too far in describing the financial impact by using the word "could" and measuring the impact in per-household terms.

The panel met Thursday to come up with another version.

The difference between the two forecasts was one of size. The first estimate figured a "statewide" system of nearly 1,000 miles. The new version assumes the system will fall just short of 500 miles.

But the 2000 ballot measure only required a system that links the state's five main urban areas. So the analysts scaled down their assumptions about the size of a final train network.

As implemented by state lawmakers and managed by a high speed rail authority, the first phase of the project will run from Orlando to Tampa-St. Petersburg.

The state would commit $75 million a year for the first leg of the train under the plan prepared by Fluor Bombardier, the company selected to design, build and operate the train.

The second leg, which is in the planning stages, goes down to Miami.

The cost estimate agreed to Thursday would extend another leg to Jacksonville and the last leg to the Sarasota-Bradenton area.

Thom Rumberger, a lawyer for C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the Lakeland businessman who pushed through the 2000 train proposal, said Dockery would appeal the new version to the Florida Supreme Court.

Chief Financial Office Tom Gallagher, who headed the repeal petition drive this summer, predicted even cut in half the price tag would give voters "sticker shock."

"They'll realize that $25 billion would be better spent on ... building highways to ease traffic congestion and educating our children," Gallagher said in a statement.

Friday, August 13, 2004

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