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Four years after passage, Fla. bullet train goes back to voters

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Mike Branom on October 14.)

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Will a bullet train help free Floridians from snarling traffic or is it one-way express to financial disaster?

The argument comes to a head on Nov. 2, when voters decide whether they really meant it when they said four years ago they want a high-speed rail network crisscrossing Florida. Amendment 6, if passed, would repeal the constitutional amendment approved in 2000 requiring a bullet train.

Not a foot of track has yet been built - but there's been miles of rhetoric laid over the project's perceived costs and benefits.

"I'd love to have a train - I passed a bill in 1984 to help the private sector build a train," Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher said. "But I don't think it ought to be in our consitiution and I don't think the state should should pay the whole bill for the train."

Gallagher, along with Gov. Jeb Bush, headed the petition drive that got Amendment 6 on the ballot. They and other opponents of the project believe the money would be better spent on highway construction and improvements.

But proponents of the system counter that Florida cannot pave over its traffic woes, which are among the worst in the nation.

"High-speed rail is the answer for millions to road gridlock," said Lakeland businessman C.C. "Doc" Dockery, who spent $3 million in 2000 getting the first amendment passed. Dockery added that constructing the line would benefit the economy and, once built, the train could quickly evacuate those in a hurricane's path.

The network would be one of the costliest public works projects in Florida history; the state panel that estimates the costs of amendments if passed projected a savings of up to $25 billion over 30 years, although that figure is disputed. The first leg alone, running from Orlando to Tampa, carries a cost estimated at $2.3 billion.

With so much money at stake, heavyweights are lined up on both sides of the fight.

The proposed route would take a path from Orlando International Airport directly to Walt Disney World, bypassing the International Drive tourist corridor. That has Disney squaring off against theme park rivals Universal and SeaWorld, which have combined to contribute $900,000 of the $3.1 million raised for the anti-train drive.

"There's larger issues at stake: the comfort of the guests, traffic and the environment," said Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based consulting firm. "Sometimes you have to lay down the swords and say, this is a program that benefits the masses.

"But nobody's going to blink."

Among other big-dollar contributors are:

_The Villages, a massive retirement community in central Florida, which gave $900,000. Developer Gary Morse is a major fund-raiser for the GOP.

_The road builders' political action committee Moving Florida, which donated $755,000.

_A collection of transportation interests, including Southwest Airlines, CSX Transportation, Enterprise Rent-a-Car and Florida East Coast Industries, coming together for $180,000.

Bush has been firmly against the project from the start, which landed him in hot water during a trade mission to Canada over the summer. He decried the train's potential costs during his stay in Quebec - where there is a factory for Bombardier Transportation, the multinational firm contracted to build Florida's rolling stock.

"After this, Jeb Bush is expecting us to buy the products and services of the 18 small- to medium-sized businesses (that are) part of the delegation?" asked an article in the Montreal daily La Presse.

Back at home, Gallagher's tactics during the petition drive angered the bullet train backers, who accused him of slanting facts and raising false arguments.

First, Gallagher mailed fund-raising letters warning that the state's first income tax might be levied to fund construction. The state constitution forbids an income tax and that could only be changed by voters - a highly unlikely possibility.

Gallagher then enlisted an expert in commercial aviation to testify before Financial Impact Estimating Conference.

Fred Dudley, chairman of the Florida High Speed Rail Authority, which is managing the project, questioned the expert's credentials and the $25 billion projection the panel put forth.

"We weren't given a chance to question him or to look into how he did his figures. But I'd ask him, if I had an opportunity, what technology did he price? Did he price gold-plated maglev (magnetic levitation)? In that case, his figures might be accurate. Or did he price what we've actually had bid and what our bidders have specified?"

Dockery said the state's annual outlay over that 30-year period will be $75 million.

The vote may come down to how Floridians react to having their wish for a transportation alternative thrown back at them for, essentially, a do-over.

"Citizens tend not to like to be told they were wrong," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who researches citizen initiatives across the nation.

But they weren't wrong, replied Gallagher. He just believes that in 2000 Floridians were simply sold the idea of a shiny train set that never included a price tag.

"I'm letting them be fully informed when they vote," Gallagher said.

A Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey conducted Oct. 4-5 showed Amendment 6 is supported by only 39 percent of those questioned, with 45 percent saying they are opposed.

"The citizens knew what they were voting for in 2000, and they don't want the roadbuilders, developers and greedy International Drive special interest groups to take it away from them," Dockery said.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

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