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High-speed rail deal still under negotiation

(The Associated Press distributed the following article by Jackie Hallifax on March 1.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The basic details of an agreement between the board overseeing Florida's high-speed rail project and the company chosen to build the network will be in place by June or July, officials said Monday.

Florida's High Speed Rail Authority, while acknowledging that negotiating the contract is taking longer than planned, said good progress is being made on the project of building a fast train to link the state's five major urban areas. The first leg of the project is to connect Orlando and Tampa.

Fluor Bombardier was chosen in October as the builder, and officials wanted a deal in place by March. But board members were told contract tasks were too daunting to have been completed in four months.

"Negotiating a $2 billion lump-sum turnkey project with 30 years of operation and maintenance is no small task," said David Gedney, Fluor's executive director of the high-speed rail project.

The contract with Fluor Bombardier is contingent on the authority's hammering out details with highway and airport authorities in Orlando and Walt Disney World.

And a few weeks after picking Fluor Bombardier for the job, the authority asked the consortium to revise its proposal to add a second track to the line and to prepare the route for electric trains in the future.

Those changes would add about $300 million to the proposal's cost.

The price tag on the project is something that Gov. Jeb Bush has strongly criticized. In December, Bush urged state lawmakers, who begin their two-month session today, to again consider repealing the project.

But past repeal efforts have failed, and it's not clear there's enough support in the Legislature to take the issue back to voters this year.

Authority member C.C. "Doc" Dockery, a Lakeland businessman who got the project before voters in 2000 by financing a petition drive, said he doesn't think the project is in jeopardy.

"According to our count, there are not enough votes in the House or the Senate to put it back on the ballot," Dockery said.

Tuesday, March 2, 2004

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