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Public hearing set on bullet train routes

(The Ledger posted the following story by Bill Rufty on its website on October 9.)

LAKELAND, Fla. -- It has been a struggle over the last few months for members of the Florida High Speed Rail Authority, following a funding veto by Gov. Jeb Bush.

But authority members plan to select a contractor and a route for the bullet train by the end of this month, and their consultants will hold a third public hearing on route alternatives from 5 to 8 p.m. today at The Lakeland Center.

The first leg of the route, which will run from Tampa to Orlando, will have a stop in Lakeland, and county economic development officials will make a pitch to have the train's maintenance yards in Polk County as well.

Although opponents of the high-speed train have fought against it in the three years since voters approved it, the project is nearing construction, said authority member C.C. "Doc" Dockery of Lakeland.

Dockery spent $3 million of his own money to get the issue of a bullet train on the 2000 general election ballot. The bullet-train amendment passed with 53 percent of the statewide vote.

Gov. Bush, an opponent of the bullet train, fought the train's funding during the legislative session earlier this year and then vetoed it after the Legislature passed it against his efforts.

The Senate turned back an attempt by Bush to send the issue back to the voters in hopes they would kill it.

Despite the governor's opposition, supporters say they are still confident they can get a route and contractor selected for the first phase and then win state funding in the 2004 Legislature to match federal grants.

The governor's office convinced a majority of authority members to hold off selecting a route and contractor this summer, but the authority now has both issues on its agenda for an Oct. 27 meeting. That's four days before the constitutional deadline to have a builder for the train.

Two companies -- Fluor Bombardier and Global Rail Consortium -- were named to the short list of potential builders and operators of the system in April.

Today's meeting in Lakeland is part of a series of hearings required by the Federal Railway Administration. Authority members have said that a majority of the cost of the rail link will be paid with federal grants.

The meeting is open to the public. Consultants will answer questions on the route through Polk County, which is slated to follow the median of Interstate 4.

The consultants are also taking written comments.

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

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