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Bullet train rides again on ballot

(The following article by Jim Saunders was posted on the Daytona Beach News-Journal website on October 6.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- With Florida's roads increasingly clogged, voters in 2000 approved a vision: trains whisking past traffic at more than 120 mph, carrying passengers between the state's major cities.

The vote was a victory for supporters of building a high-speed rail system who had long argued that Florida needed to look beyond endless traffic jams and road projects and find a better way to move people.

But it was a financial nightmare to opponents, who feared it would force the state to sink untold billions of dollars into a rail system that would not draw enough passengers to make it worthwhile.

Now, four years later -- with the debate still raging and the system still mostly a vision -- voters will have another say.

Gov. Jeb Bush and state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher are helping spearhead a campaign asking voters this fall to repeal the 2000 constitutional amendment that required construction of the rail system.

Backers of the repeal effort say building the system would do little to solve the state's traffic woes, while draining billions of dollars that are needed for road projects throughout Florida.

"When it passed, no one talked about how much money it would cost the taxpayers of this state," Gallagher said.

But pro-train groups, including labor and environmental organizations, say those cost estimates are inflated and that the system is a better alternative than simply building more and wider roads.

"We will never be able to pave our way out of the current gridlock," said Ken Walton, executive director of The Rail Truth, a political committee set up to prevent the repeal.

The repeal initiative is one of eight proposed constitutional amendments that Florida voters will decide during the Nov. 2 election. But the rail question is unique because voters will be asked to approve an amendment undoing what they have already passed.

The 2000 amendment called for the state to create a high-speed rail system that would link Florida's five largest urban areas. Though construction has not started, the first leg is planned to go from Orlando to Tampa, with the second leg likely going from Orlando to Miami.

Florida leaders have mulled the idea of building a high-speed rail system, known widely as a "bullet train," since the 1970s. But the idea was stymied until Lakeland businessman and longtime train-backer C.C. "Doc" Dockery circumvented Bush and the Legislature and got the issue on the 2000 ballot.

Voters approved the amendment by nearly 300,000 votes. Volusia and Flagler County voters overwhelmingly supported the amendment, passing it by a margin of more than 34,000 votes -- though it would be years, or possibly even decades, before high-speed rail would pass through the counties.

Train opponents are poised to spend millions of dollars this fall to try to repeal the 2000 amendment. Two pro-repeal political committees have already raised at least $3.2 million, with major contributions coming from developers, the road-building industry and owners of Sea World Orlando and Universal Orlando -- who lost a fight with Disney World about the proposed path of the first leg.

Walton said his pro-train committee has raised $135,000, with $75,000 coming from Dockery.

Much of this fall's debate centers on the cost of the project, which was not addressed in the 2000 amendment. Pro-train groups say building the system would cost the state about $75 million a year -- just a fraction of the overall transportation budget -- but Gallagher argues the cost could be 10 times higher.

A panel of state economists estimated this summer that the system would cost $20 billion to $25 billion over 30 years. But the actual cost to state taxpayers is difficult to pinpoint because plans call for seeking money from the federal government and through agreements with a private contractor that would build and operate the system.

Senate Minority Leader Ron Klein, a Boca Raton Democrat who is an outspoken opponent of the rail system, said he thinks it would cost "hundreds of millions of dollars a year to make this thing work." He said that would force the state to take money from road-widening projects and from public transportation programs in urban areas.

Bob Burleson, who heads a road-building industry group, said he also doesn't think the state can count on receiving federal money for the project. He said that leaves a huge question about how much the state would have to pay.

"One of the scary things to me is, you don't know," said Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association.

But Keith Lee Rupp, president of the pro-train Florida Transportation Association, said estimates have repeatedly put the state's cost at $75 million a year. That includes estimates from the Florida High Speed Rail Authority, a state panel in charge of overseeing the project.

What's more, train backers say the cost estimates don't reflect other benefits such as potentially reducing traffic congestion and lessening the need to widen roads. Eric Draper, conservation director for Audubon of Florida, said building more roads would lead to additional air and water pollution.

"Clearly, a bullet train is the environmental alternative to building more roads," Draper said.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

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