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Board keeps up chase for new Fla. high-speed rail

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Jackie Hallifax on June 19.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The board charged with overseeing creation of a Florida high-speed train is still chugging along, more than half a year after voters yanked the bullet train provision from the state constitution.

The Florida High Speed Rail Authority even welcomed a new board member Friday as it elected a new chairman and extended contracts for the consultants who have carried out the planning process over the last few years.

The consultants are working on the final details of a document needed to get federal approval for the first leg of a high-speed train from Orlando to Tampa.

But, with unrelenting opposition from Gov. Jeb Bush, the train itself seems shelved - at least for now.

So far, drafting the plans has taken about four years and cost about $14 million. Once the federal approval is granted, it's good for three years.

Getting the federal approval "really protects the investment that the public has already made in high speed rail," outgoing chairman Fred Dudley said after Friday's meeting.

Dudley, a Tallahassee attorney and former state lawmaker, has chaired the authority since it was created in 2001. He is succeeded by Lee Chira of Orlando.

Friday's meeting was only the second the nine-member authority has held since November, when voters reversed course on the issue of high-speed rail.

In 2000, voters approved a ballot measure that changed the Florida Constitution to order state leaders to build a statewide high-speed rail project.

The is the fourth time in the last quarter century that the state has made an effort to plan and build a bullet train, Dudley said. He said $30 million to $40 million total was spent on earlier efforts.

Bush said he isn't opposed to high-speed rail at the right time but that he believed the department of transportation could manage it.

He warned repeatedly that the current project was a boondoggle and tried to get the Legislature to put a repeal proposal on the ballot. When that failed, the governor threw his support behind a petition drive to get a repeal measure on the 2004 ballot.

That effort was successful and voters in November approved the repeal provision.

But the removal of the constitutional provision did nothing to abolish the legislatively created authority.

After meeting in December, the high speed rail authority agreed to wait and see what action lawmakers took during their two-month session, which ended in early May.

Since the Legislature did nothing, the board remains in place. It has about $1 million in state funds, with about $600,000 of that in reserve and $300,000 earmarked for the consultants. It also has another $4 million in federal funds, which can be spent only with approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Bush seemed surprised Friday to hear the board was meeting.

"That's fine," he said. "There are a lot of things that exist in statute that kind of have died a death in terms of practicality."

Monday, June 20, 2005

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