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High-speed rail plans progress unsteadily in Tampa

(The Tampa Tribune posted the following story by Joe Humphrey on its website on October 6.)

TAMPA, Fla. -- Three years ago, Florida voters decided the state needed a high-speed train linking their cities and mandated their desire in the state constitution.

This week, residents will have a chance to weigh in on the issue again, at public hearings. The sessions are part of the federal permitting process and will focus on the potential environmental impacts of the proposed rail system.

It's anybody's guess whether the bullet train will ever be built. Questions loom about how to pay for it, and a cadre of politicians and activists are working to derail the project before the first inch of track is laid.

Still, plans for the system's first leg linking Tampa and Orlando are moving forward.

This month, the Florida High Speed Rail Authority is to choose one of two bidders vying for the chance to build the system. The authority also will decide whether the line will link Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World or the convention center.

The hearings are scheduled for Tuesday in Seffner, Wednesday in Lakeland and Thursday in Orlando.

"They can make comments about anything that relates to the project, whatever it is that's on their minds," said Nazih Haddad, staff director for the rail authority.

He predicted some people may come and speak not about the environmental implications, but about how Florida doesn't need or can't afford a high-speed rail system.

"It's controversial because some folks don't want to implement what's in the constitution," Haddad said.

As long as the law mandates a train, though, he said, work will continue. Thus the hearings will happen so the authority can work toward earning its federal building permit by next spring.

Then comes the matter of the bill.

Even the least expensive Orlando-to-Tampa option tops $2 billion, or more than $100 million a year for 20 years.

That's too much for David Goodstein of Derail the Bullet Train, a political action committee. He said the train's approval on the amendment- crowded November 2000 ballot came with little public discussion during a hotly contested election year.

"The fair thing would be to get it on the ballot in 2004, have a full and open discussion about the advantages ... and then have the people vote on it," he said.

Letting voters revisit the issue won't be easy: It requires support from three-fifths of the Legislature or signatures from more than 488,000 Florida voters.

The campaign to approve the train, financed largely by Lakeland's Doc Dockery, cost more than $3 million. So far, the derailment effort has collected less than $6,000.

"I don't sense a grass-roots movement sufficient enough to put it back on the ballot," said Doug Callaway, president of Floridians for Better Transportation.

In Tallahassee, state Rep. Bob Allen, R-Merritt Island, filed a bill last month seeking a place on the ballot. There are no similar plans in the Senate.

The nation's only existing high-speed line, Amtrak's Acela Express, runs between Boston and Washington.

Will Florida be next?

Even Haddad can't say.

"It's not a done deal yet," he said. "That's for sure."

Tuesday, October 7, 2003

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