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High-speed train opponents rearm

(The following article by Allison North Jones was posted on the Tampa Tribune website on September 17.)

TALLAHASSEE -- Signaling new legislative resolve to derail the high-speed train mandate, the first bill filed for the 2004 legislative session would send the costly constitutional amendment back to the ballot for voters to reconsider.

House Joint Resolution 0003 was introduced Tuesday by state Rep. Bob Allen, R-Merritt Island, a critic of the voter- mandated transportation project. If the resolution is approved by three-fifths of the Legislature, voters would be given a chance to reverse their 2000 decision, which analysts estimate could cost $20 billion over three decades.

``Facts are stubborn things,'' Allen said, quoting former President Reagan. ``And the facts are this train is a huge budget eater.''

Gov. Jeb Bush unsuccessfully lobbied lawmakers to send the measure back to the ballot this year.

Bush and other lawmakers say voters need the opportunity to reconsider the constitutional mandate now that they know how much it will cost.

Proposals for the first line, from Tampa to Orlando, would cost the state $75 million a year for 30 years. Construction is supposed to begin no later than next year.

``Voters need the opportunity to make a decision based on all of the information and how much it will cost,'' said Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj. ``When they voted, they didn't know how much it was going to cost.''

Still, Allen will have the task of getting the three-fifths vote in the Legislature to pass the measure.

Last year, it never reached the Senate floor and Senate leaders have no plans for a similar proposal during the next session, said Sarah Bascom, a spokeswoman for Senate President Jim King.

High-speed rail advocates say Allen's proposal is likely to meet a similar fate this time around.

``I think the people of Florida will see this thing through,'' said C.C. ``Doc'' Dockery, the Lakeland businessman who spearheaded the high-speed rail ballot measure in 2000.

``I would be surprised if members of Legislature have changed their minds - Allen hasn't changed his. Other opponents haven't changed their mind. I doubt supporters have changed their mind.''

Lawmakers who support construction of the rail said proposing the repeal will be an uphill battleand unwise.

``I don't think it's a responsible way to handle the issues,'' said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland. Ross said he was sure the governor would try to twist arms again next session to get the votes to repeal the amendment, but he said, ``putting that on the ballot with his brother running for president ... isn't wise at all.''

Ross and Dockery said moving forward with construction of the high-speed rail system in Florida could also mean millions of dollars in federal funding for the state.

Dockery said $7.5 million has been set aside in this year's proposed federal transportation budget for design and development of high-speed rail systems throughout the country. Of the $7.5 million budget, $5 million has been set aside for Florida's high-speed rail construction.

The Florida High Speed Rail Authority has scheduled a series of public hearings next month regarding construction plans for the Tampa-to-Orlando leg of the system.

Hillsborough County's hearing is scheduled for 5 to 8 p.m. Oct. 7 at Armwood High School, 12000 U.S. 92, Seffner. The following day, at the same time, a hearing is scheduled for the Lakeland Center's Lake Hollingsworth Ballroom, 700 W. Lemon St.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

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