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Fla. train panel chugs on despite voters' repeal

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Mike Branom on November 10.)

ORLANDO -- A proposed bullet-train system has a new route and may soon have a new contractor.

The Florida High Speed Rail Authority decided Wednesday to scrap plans that would run the bullet line directly to the Walt Disney World resort from Orlando's tourist-rich airport. The new route would take the train past the International Drive tourist district, which includes the Orange County Convention Center.

Also, the authority heard a proposal made by a contractor whose bid was rejected last year. Global Rail Authority is offering to take on more of the financial burden, appealing to lawmakers afraid of the state being stuck with much of the bill.

The authority's meeting was the first since Floridians voted overwhelmingly last week to repeal a constitutional amendment requiring the state to build a bullet train system.

Authority members said the vote has not killed the project. Instead, they said, the citizens' decision was a cue for freer thinking.

"We have no mandate," Fred Dudley, the authority's chairman, said Wednesday. "But we still have a good idea."

Although the amendment is gone, the authority lives on until the Legislature kills it. And Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, who may chair the Senate Transportation Committee during the upcoming session, has said he wants work to continue.

The authority voted to change a near-completed environmental impact statement to reflect a different path out of Orlando International Airport. The new report will study the effects if the train was to take a more northerly route along the Bee Line Expressway.

The authority chose the GreeneWay route last year because Disney promised about four times as many riders than I-Drive, and that revenue stream was too large to pass up. In addition, Disney threatened to withhold its cooperation if the train didn't travel directly to its property.

But disgruntled interests on I-Drive put forth much of the money used persuading voters to repeal the amendment. Also, the GreeneWay alignment took the train past the 24,000-resident Hunter's Creek community, and the activism of those citizens was another roadblock.

"Those people have been very effective," said authority member C.C. "Doc" Dockery, who spent $3 million four years ago getting the original amendment passed.

Disney officials had no immediate comment Wednesday.

Global Rail Consortium's renewed interest is important because Gov. Jeb Bush and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who led the repeal drive, convinced voters that the state would be responsible for far too much of the project's funding.

GRC is offering a financial package of $2.4 billion - $400 million in equity with the remainder in bonds and grants. Under the South Korean-led consortium's plan, Florida would pay $75 million a year.

"It's a long-term commitment to the state for high-speed rail," Katherine Beck, Global Rail's executive director, told the panel.

The current contractor, Fluor-Bombardier, has put forth an offer with much of its funding on the back end. That would put the state on the hook immediately, much to the consternation of lawmakers and the authority.

"The new contractor thing has been coming for a while," Dudley acknowledged.

Matt Barkley, representing Montreal-based Fluor-Bombardier, defended the company's financial proposal as "completely transparent." Fluor-Bombardier also has said the state's annual contribution would be limited to $75 million.

Money aside, GRC may have the edge in technology. The consortium would run in Florida electric trains with a maximum speed of 210 mph, said Chong-Seo Shin, chairman of Korea Railroad Technical Corporation.

By contrast, Fluor-Bombardier is planning to use a jet turbine-powered train that tops out at 125 mph.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

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