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Big dollars at stake in revote over Florida bullet train

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Mike Branom on November 2.)

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Opponents of a bullet train approved by the voters in 2000 spent millions trying to convince the same voters that their project is a boondoggle. Everyone will learn after Tuesday whether the pitch to derail the train cut through voters' frustration with Florida's maddening traffic.

Amendment 6, if passed, would kill the high speed rail network the same voters approved four years ago. Although no construction has started, the first leg connecting Orlando and Tampa has been laid out and a contractor selected. Its cost is estimated at more than $2.3 billion.

Backers of the amendment collected more than $3.1 million, a war chest that bullet train supporters admitted is far more than they had.

"This is a David and Goliath situation," said Ken Walton, executive director of The Rail Truth. "We've got a slingshot and they've got a huge multi-million-dollar budget."

Hundreds of citizens donated to the anti-train drive, prompting Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher to praise it as a "grassroots effort." But the vast majority of the money came from a road builders' political action committee, two theme parks upset that the line would stop on Disney property and not theirs, and a deep-pocketed booster of Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP.

Bush, a longtime foe of rail projects, believes people were enamored with the idea of speedy train set. He said if voters are serious about ending gridlock, killing the train would free money better spent on regional transportation.

"It will cost more than the damage done by all four hurricanes," Bush said. "It's too high a price to pay for something that's, well, romantic, I guess. When we were young, we all thought that fast trains were cool."

Gallagher, who shepherded Amendment 6 through the petition process and to the ballot, and Bush decried the rail's price tag of $25 million over 30 years, as estimated by a state panel for a network connecting Miami and southeastern Florida with Orlando and the Tampa Bay area .

"This campaign is about responsible spending and affording Floridians the opportunity to take a second look," Gallagher said.

Keith Lee Rupp, president of the pro-train Florida Transportation Association, questioned the cost estimate since only the Tampa-Orlando leg has been studied in depth.

"Why does the governor think the whole system has to be built at once, when the proposal on the table is for it to be built in phases?" Rupp said. "In the next 10 to 15 years, projections are that Florida will become the third largest state in the union, surpassing New York State. With growth like that, we have to have an alternative to more lanes of more highways."

Bullet trains are being studied in many other regions, such as California and the Midwest, but Florida's project is the furthest along. If Floridians kill the project, it could free federal money for the other regions.

In Canada, jobs depend on the vote. A consortium led by Montreal-based Bombardier was selected in November to run the project, and the company stands to gain $500 million if the train starts rolling.

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

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