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Gov. Bush to push repeal of high speed rail

(The following article by Jerome R. Stockfish and Allison North Jones was posted on the Tampa Tribune website on March 4.)

TALLAHASSEE -- The drive to repeal a voter-mandated high- speed rail system, something lawmakers are proving unwilling to tackle themselves, will get a major push today from Gov. Jeb Bush and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher.

The two Republicans have scheduled a joint news conference this morning at the Capitol, a day after a key House panel voted down a legislative proposal that would have put the costly bullet train back on the ballot for voters to reconsider.

Bush's office wouldn't disclose the topic of the announcement, but lawmakers familiar with the governor's opposition to high-speed rail said the duo would announce their support of a citizen's initiative petition drive under way in parts of the state.

If successful, a new constitutional amendment squelching the train would trump the one requiring it as a result of the 2000 vote.

With today's expected action, the governor takes his call for repeal out of the Legislature and into the streets. Bush and legislative leaders from both parties have repeatedly called on lawmakers to act.

State senators and representatives can draw up ballot measures for statewide vote. But lawmakers have been reluctant to ask voters to rethink the issue. In addition to the bill shot down Wednesday, several similar bills died in the 2003 session.

The governor's advocacy against the rail system was conspicuously absent from his State of the State speech Tuesday. But a spokeswoman said his opposition has not waned, and today's scheduled news conference appears to reinforce that.

``The governor's opinion has been very clear,'' spokeswoman Alia Faraj said. ``He did not believe that voters were provided with very important information about the fiscal impacts of building the train.''

In a letter to lawmakers in December, Bush wrote, ``Projected costs are unreliable and escalating, the assumptions on how high speed rail will be paid for are not sound, ridership and revenue forecasts are questionable, and promised private sector investment and risk assumption has not materialized.''

Bush put the price tag for Phase I of the project, between Tampa and Orlando, at $1.2 billion; Phase II, from Orlando to Miami, at $5 billion to $9 billion in current dollars; and up to five more phases for a truly statewide system at $27 billion.

Senate Minority Leader and rail opponent Ron Klein has been working both ways for constitutional change. The Boca Raton Democrat acknowledged he hasn't had success winning over fellow legislators; meanwhile, a citizens group he supports has collected about 75,000 signatures for a constitutional amendment.

``Having the governor and CFO join the team will add more fuel to the fire and add more to the discussion,'' said Klein, who seldom sides with the Republican governor.

The endorsements from Bush and Gallagher ``are going to give the people out there working on the petition drive some boost,'' said Rep. Bob Allen, R-Merritt Island, sponsor of the House bill that got the thumbs-down Wednesday. ``We are trying to help [the public] so they can vote `no' on the cost.''

State Rep. Dennis Ross, R- Lakeland, a high-speed rail supporter, said it would take ``a lot of bloodletting or arm- twisting'' to get a repeal measure passed in the Legislature.

Ross said he's puzzled by the governor's continued criticism of the development of a high-speed rail system. ``To just say no without presenting any alternatives to what clearly is a transportation crisis in the state of Florida is putting your head in the sand.''

Thursday, March 4, 2004

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