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Fla. may miss voter-mandated deadline for high-speed rail

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Florida likely will not start building a statewide high-speed rail system by a voter-mandated deadline, officials said Wednesday.

The Bradenton Herald reported that construction of the proposed system's first leg, between Tampa and Orlando, probably won't begin until mid-2004 at the earliest, a Florida High Speed Rail Authority member said. Construction can't start until the Federal Railroad Administration approves the project, which isn't expected until at least April 2004, officials said.

That would be well beyond the November 2003 deadline contained in a state constitutional amendment that voters passed in 2000.

"It's a long shot" that the state will meet the deadline, authority member James A. "Skip" Fowler acknowledged during a media briefing at the Orange County Convention Center.

Authority members have known "almost since the start" that construction wouldn't begin by the constitutional deadline, said Norman Mansour of Anna Maria, an authority member. Because of that, the authority last year determined that construction would officially begin upon the signing of a construction contract, he said.

"We believe that fulfills the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law," said Mansour, who was not at the media briefing.

"Our legal advisers have agreed with that all along."

But that interpretation could face legal and political challenges, opponents of the amendment said.

"I think there could be lawsuits as a result," said Donald Crane, president of Floridians for Better Transportation, which opposed using the state constitution to mandate the rail system. "If the authority pushes too hard, there could be some legislators offering amendments to strike down high-speed rail."

Opponents also question whether "backdating" the construction contract, as state officials are proposing to do, would satisfy the constitutional deadline. The state's schedule calls for executing the contract in May 2004. Plans call for first building the Tampa-Orlando leg for an estimated $1.5 billion, followed by an extension to St. Petersburg. Service between Tampa and Orlando would start in late 2008.

But Fowler said he's not sure if high-speed trains capable of going 120 mph should be running the short trip between Tampa and St. Petersburg.

"How far apart is Tampa and St. Petersburg? Six miles?" he said.

"Why put in high-speed rail for six miles? Those are commuters, not high-speed rail riders."

He also said high-speed rail service would require building a $400 million to $500 million bridge over Tampa Bay because the three existing highway bridges could not handle the added weight.

Mansour said the rail authority has not discussed that segment in-depth nor made any decisions, but plans to operate under the premise the amendment requires high-speed service between Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The state also plans an Orlando-to-Miami line, with construction starting in early 2006 and trains operating on it in late 2010. The estimated construction cost is $6 billion to $8 billion.

State officials hope the federal government foots at least half the bill, with whichever private firm chosen to run the trains contributing at least 10 percent.

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

Friday, November 15, 2002

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