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Fla. House panel clears fast-train funding

(The Lakeland Ledger posted the following Associated Press article by Brendan Farrington on its website on April 15.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A House committee approved a bill that would authorize the state to spend $75 million a year for 30 years on the high speed rail opposed by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Under the proposal (HB 855) money would be used to build the first phase of a high speed rail project voters put into the constitution in 2000, a line which would run from Orlando to Tampa.

Bill sponsor Rep. Dennis Ross said the bill would take effect in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2004, but he noted the House has already included $75 million in the budget year that begins this July.

Ross, R-Lakeland, said authorizing the spending would send a message to the federal government that the state is serious about building the train and would put it in a good position to obtain federal money to help with the project.

But the idea drew fire from some lawmakers who say the state cannot afford to spend billions on a train when it has more pressing needs.

"This is a seriously embarrassing boondoggle that we're going to put billions of dollars down this black hole while our communities desperate for basic services," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. "I hope my folks are watching today because there's no way I could go home and tell them that I did this with their money. No sir, I am sorry, I can't ride this train."

According to bids received by the state, just the Orlando to Tampa line could cost the state as much as $2.7 billion to build.

Bush has asked lawmakers to put a measure on the next ballot that would ask voters to reconsider the constitutional amendment they passed requiring the state to connect Florida's five largest cities with a fast train. In his inaugural address in January, Bush said the train will force the state to raise taxes.

But bill supporters said the train will help the economy and create jobs, and pointed out lawmakers must build the train because voters demanded it.

"This is an investment in the state, it's an investment in the future and transportation breeds opportunity," Ross said. "I would ask for your vision and hope that we would be the pioneer for this country for what is probably going to happen in the United States whether we do it or not."

The House Finance & Tax Committee voted 17-7 in favor of the bill. It now goes to the Appropriations Committee before heading to the full House.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

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