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Fla. high-speed rail panel votes to continue work

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Jackie Hallifax on December 10.)

TALLAHASSEE -- The voters have spoken, but the Florida High Speed Rail Authority wants to hear from state lawmakers.

The issue is the future of the nine-member panel the Legislature created to oversee planning and construction of a high-speed train connecting people across Florida.

Voters in 2000 approved a ballot measure that changed the Florida Constitution to force state leaders to build a statewide high-speed rail project.

Gov. Jeb Bush, a devoted opponent of the provision, warned the project was a boondoggle and tried to convince the Legislature to put a proposal to repeal the measure on the ballot.

Failing in that, the governor championed a petition drive and put his repeal before voters last month. They agreed to yank the language out of the state constitution.

No construction has begun, but a route and a contractor were selected. The system's first leg -Orlando to Tampa -- was forecast to cost $2.3 billion.

A week after Election Day, the authority met and said the vote didn't really kill the project but, instead, gave the state greater flexibility. The panel decided to change the planned route and consider a proposal from another contractor.

Two state lawmakers -- one a chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee -- encouraged the authority at that November meeting to continue working.

On Wednesday, Bush wrote authority members, asking them to turn its business over to the state Department of Transportation to oversee.

When the board met Thursday, it voted 4-2 to defeat a motion by authority member Michael Harrell to transfer the contracts.

"Given November, we ought to turn out the lights and let DOT pick it up from here," he said.

But authority member C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the Lakeland businessman who put the project on the ballot four years ago, said he was "absolutely opposed" to turning over the contracts to DOT, where, he said, "clearly there is not an appetite for continuing this work."

Dockery said he didn't think lawmakers would disband the authority.

Bush later said he thought the authority should go "dormant" and stop meeting.

"The people have spoken," Bush said. "It's time to move on. I think the Legislature should put a stake in it, but that will be up to them."

Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin, a Republican chairing the House Transportation Committee, said Thursday he agreed with Bush.

"I think the House position will be very consistent with the governor's position," Sansom said.

But that feeling wasn't universal. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, said he thought it would be prudent to keep the authority in place to look at alternative modes of transportation.

Friday, December 10, 2004

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