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Gov. Bush blasts bullet train costs

(The following article by Allison North Jones was posted on the Tampa Tribune website on December 5.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Determined to derail the costly voter-mandated bullet train next year, Gov. Jeb Bush sent Florida lawmakers a lengthy letter Thursday asking them to help save taxpayers billions of dollars.

``The high-speed rail project is not a sound investment for Florida's future,'' Bush said in his written pitch to enlist legislative support for repealing the constitutional mandate to build a high-speed rail system in Florida.

In 2000, Florida voters ignored Bush's public opposition to the project and approved the amendment, the first phase of which includes a passenger rail link between Tampa and Orlando. The Florida High Speed Rail Authority agreed in October to hire Fluor-Bombardier, a partnership of California and Canadian companies to build the system.

Although they haven't successfully put the constitutional amendment authorizing the train back on the ballot, Bush and other lawmakers have delayed it numerous times.

Last spring, three years after voter approval, the Legislature finally allocated money to the project, only to see Bush gut the $7.2 million earmarked for construction.

Bush's letter comes after a year of high-profile lobbying by the governor in an effort to stall the project and put it back on the ballot. He believes voters will reverse themselves once they realize the system will cost taxpayers $46 million a year over the next three decades. ``We will spend billions of dollars before a single rider supports the system,'' Bush wrote.

Bush's biggest objections include cost projections he calls ``unreliable'' and ``escalating.''

``Unlikely major federal assistance, unreliable ridership, and the lack of real private sector risk assumption places the cost of this project squarely on the shoulders of Florida taxpayers.''

Bush cites the laundry list of uncertainties as the driving force behind his campaign to give voters a second chance.

But high-speed rail proponents say the governor is missing the point.

``What does he propose is a solution to the transportation gridlock we have?'' asked Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland. ``We have a transportation dilemma in the state, if his answer is to pave more lanes then I think that is even more inefficient and less cost effective and not environmentally sound,'' said Ross, who sponsored the House's high-speed rail bill.

Others said it was nothing more than a decadelong campaign by the governor to stop any high-speed rail in Florida.

``He's trying to pull off the biggest train robbery in the history of this nation,'' said C.C. ``Doc'' Dockery, the Lakeland millionaire who sponsored the 2000 ballot measure.

Dockery, a member of the rail authority, said Bush has ignored Fluor-Bombardier's promise to return $2 billion to the state and economists' predictions that it will bring be an economic boon to the state.

As part of the proposal approved by the High-Speed Rail Authority, Fluor-Bombardier has said it would return the majority of ridership revenue to the state in the first two years.

Tim Lynch, an FSU economist hired by bullet train backers to study the economic impact of the high-speed rail project, said he found the project will stimulate the state's economy and generate jobs.

``Will there be costs that the public have to initially cover? Yes.'' he said, adding, ``It's just as they do with roads, airports, port facilities: All transportation is subsidized.'

Friday, December 5, 2003

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