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Authority moves ahead with bullet train plans

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Florida's proposed bullet train still has a positive future despite Gov. Jeb Bush's re-election and the approval of the expensive class-size amendment, a Florida High Speed Rail Authority member said in an Associated Press report yesterday.

Skip Fowler said the state's financial commitment to fast trains - which he called "the single biggest public works project in the history of Florida" - would be about $70 million annually. That would be less than 1.5 percent of what the state annually spends on transportation.

Fowler said that in context the high-speed rail's cost "is not all that significant."

The state is facing a budget crunch, and dollars must be stretched even further after the passage of Amendment 9, which will reduce public school class sizes at a cost of between $8 billion and $27.5 billion over eight years.

But during the coming legislative session, lawmakers also must find a way to help pay for bullet trains.

High-speed rail was voted into the state constitution two years ago, with construction mandated to begin by November 2003 - although Fowler admitted that target was unlikely to be met. A more realistic date for groundbreaking would be the second half of 2004, he said, with trains running four years later.

The first planned leg, running from Tampa to Orlando, would cost about $1.5 billion. The price of an Orlando-to-Miami line, the authority's second priority, would be about $6 billion to $8 billion.

Bush is not a proponent of high-speed rail, and has repeatedly said he fears the state would be stuck with the lion's share of the bill.

One of Bush's first acts after taking office in 1999 was to pull the state out of its partnership with Florida Overland eXpress, a private consortium that planned to run trains between Miami, Orlando and Tampa.

"It's true that the governor is not as enthusiastic as some of us on the authority," Fowler acknowledged.

But a Washington-based rail advocate suggested that Bush should listen to the electorate.

"I understand that Jeb Bush isn't a fan, but the people of Florida are. That needs to be considered very seriously," said Mike Rivera, general counsel for the High Speed Ground Transportation Association. "The voters have spoken and they've certainly endorsed Jeb Bush for another term, but they've also endorsed high-speed rail."

Fowler said the authority's proposed funding package has the state sharing the financial burden with the federal government and whichever private firm is chosen to run the trains.

"Much like an airport, the state and federal governments would provide the basic infrastructure, and the operator would cover operations and maintenance," Fowler said.

Currently at the federal level, high-speed rail issues are on the back burner while Congress decides the future of Amtrak. The nation's only intercity passenger rail service is awash in red ink, and its federal benefactors are running short on patience.

Because Amtrak runs America's lone bullet-train line - the popular Acela between New York and Washington - the agency and high-speed rail have been regarded as one and the same.

In the wake of the GOP capturing control of the U.S. Senate, Arizona's John McCain is likely to take over as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee from Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.

McCain, an ardent critic of Amtrak, will probably press for serious reforms of the railroad, an attitude shared by his counterpart in the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

Rivera said that McCain isn't against fast trains, "but against the status quo." He also noted that it is a positive step that high-speed rail is beginning to be regarded as an issue separate from Amtrak's troubles.

Last month, Florida's high-speed rail authority issued the official document telling interested private firms how and where they want the train line built. Bids are due in February.

Also, two detailed reports of potential ridership should be finished next week. A preliminary study undertaken last year showed that by 2010, there could be as many as 2.9 million bullet-train riders a year, said Tom Biggs, a consultant to the authority.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

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