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Bullet train project moves ahead slowly, barely meets deadline

(The Associated Press distributed the following article by Mike Branom on December 1.)

ORLANDO -- Three years after voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring a fast train network across the state, the Florida High Speed Rail Authority barely met a November deadline to begin construction. A contractor has been picked and a route from Orlando to Tampa selected.

That may have been the easy part.

"We've got a long ways to go," authority member Bill Dunn said. "Once you get into the details, that's when the devils come out."

The authority must hammer out an agreement with Fluor-Bombardier, the partnership of two firms that was selected to design build, operate and maintain the rail system.

It also may try to wrestle more contributions from Walt Disney World in exchange for running the line directly from Orlando International Airport to the resort.

Disney got that concession by pledging valuable land and riders. But the authority is asking what else can Disney provide.

Throw in smaller negotiations with the airport, where there will be a terminus, and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, which owns a length of toll road where the bullet train panel wants to run its line, and the next few months could be a hard slog.

If the authority trips up even slightly, Gov. Jeb Bush could be the largest obstacle in the train's path.

"It's a boondoggle of epic proportions," Bush said. "This will consume significant parts of our transportation budget.''

Working out an agreement with Fluor-Bombardier is going to be the authority's biggest responsibility, because of the complex nature of a contract that must deal with everything from how the trains will be powered to when they're scheduled to arrive at the stations.

The bullet train panel liked Fluor-Bombardier's practical experience -- it provided the trains for Amtrak's Acela Express running from Boston to Washington, D.C. -- and business model. However, some authority members are a bit disappointed that the Orlando-to-Tampa train would be powered by a diesel engine.

"We may get to the point where it's more perception than reality," said authority member C.C. "Doc" Dockery. He noted that Fluor-Bombardier estimates that a 200-mph train would arrive in Tampa just five minutes ahead of a train going 125 mph -- the speed of Fluor-Bombardier's JetTrain.

"But it will make a difference between Orlando and Miami."

The authority also, in the interest of safety, is demanding the route be double-tracked.

These requests prompted Dunn to note that if Fluor-Bombardier acquiesces to the authority's wish list, the first line could cost an additional $800 million -- sending the price tag for the first leg past $3 billion.

Monday, December 1, 2003

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