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Fla. high-speed rail bids as high as $2.7 billion

(The Tampa Tribune posted the following article by Joe Follick on its website on February 11.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Futuristic visions of monorails and jet trains blasting across the state were on lawmakers' minds Monday as Florida continues planning a high-speed rail system in the face of Gov. Jeb Bush's skepticism.

Monday was the deadline for companies to submit proposals to build the 90-mile line between Tampa and Orlando. They suggest the cost to Florida taxpayers could be up to $2.7 billion.

``This is a very significant day in Florida history,'' said Florida High Speed Rail Authority Chairman Fred Dudley, as he unsealed the proposals minutes after Monday's 5 p.m. deadline.

An Amtrak passenger train rumbled outside the Department of Transportation headquarters as Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, dreamed about what would be the nation's first high-speed rail system outside of Amtrak's corridor between Boston and New York City.

``I was a real skeptic,'' Sebesta said. ``But I've become a real believer. I really hope we can make this thing work.''

Voters, with a 53 percent majority, passed a constitutional amendment in 2000 requiring the state to build a high-speed rail system that eventually will connect cities from Pensacola to Miami.

Running in the median of Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando with a stop in Lakeland, the first passenger won't board the first route until 2006 at the earliest.

The Tampa station would be near the county jail at Interstate 275 and Florida Avenue. The Lakeland station would be near Polk Parkway and I-4.

4 Proposals

At least 18 companies expressed an interest in operating the rail system. But the authority ended up with four very different proposals.

Two came from multinational groups with extensive experience building high- speed systems in other countries. Lawmakers and authority members indicated the two groups had the inside track.

Fluor-Bombardier, which has an office in Tampa, was chosen to build a previously planned system in Florida before Bush pulled the plug in 1999.

Its proposal would use a ``jet train,'' powered by a diesel engine at speeds up to 125 mph, making the trip between Orlando and Tampa in about an hour.

It estimates the taxpayers' cost to be $2.1 billion to $2.7 billion, depending on the final route selected in Central Florida.

David Gedney, executive director of Fluor-Bombardier, said the state would have to pay about $70 million per year for 35 years to build the system.

But Gedney said that based on the authority's expectations, enough people could be riding the train by the second year of operation to send at least $35 million in ticket revenue back to the state each year.

The other serious contender is Global Rail, a partnership between Colorado-based design firm Arcadis and a number of other companies including Korean Railroad Technical Corp., which operates a high- speed line in Korea.

Its proposal uses overhead electric lines to scoot the train to possible speeds of more than 200 mph. Global Rail officials predicted an Orlando-to- Tampa trip would take about 43 minutes.

Global Rail's proposal pegs the total taxpayer cost at $2.2 billion to and $2.5 billion, depending on where the stop in Orlando is located.

Two other proposals came from individuals with no experience and might not have met the authority's guidelines for proposals.

Georgia Monorail Consortium suggested a monorail strikingly similar to those used at Walt Disney World. The consortium's owner, William Owens of Marietta, Ga., was not available for comment.

A one-man Crystal River company named et3.com Inc. proposed a system that would shoot up to 10 passengers sitting in concrete tubes at speeds up to 400 mph. Its owner, Daryl Oster, was not available for comment Monday.

The Florida High Speed Rail Authority will discuss the proposals at its March 3 meeting. The final selection won't be made until this summer.

Ready To Call It Quits

Last month, Bush said that if the proposals required the state to carry too much of the financial burden, he would ask lawmakers to put the measure back on the ballot. He did not indicate what cost he would consider to be excessive.

Lawmakers from both parties are ready to kill the plan.

The man who funded the ``bullet train'' campaign, Lakeland businessman C.C. ``Doc'' Dockery, said Monday that he is gearing up for a fight, telling lawmakers they swore to uphold the state's Constitution and should support voters' wishes.

Dockery's public relations firm released a study Monday claiming 67 percent of Floridians polled feel a high-speed rail system will alleviate traffic congestion.

Also threatening the nascent system is bickering over where the trains would stop.

Walt Disney World has demanded the route go from Orlando's airport to its theme parks, bypassing other attractions.

Both major proposals support that route, saying it will guarantee millions in revenue, given Disney's international drawing power.

But other theme parks and county officials say there should be a rail station in Orlando's convention center and that the train should not function as a conduit for Disney alone.

Disney said Monday that as a compromise, it will support a local tax increase to pay for a light-rail line between its theme parks and other tourist attractions in the area.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

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