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Campaign seeks a new vote to repeal bullet-train project

(The following article by Erika Bolstad was posted on the Miami Herald website on March 5.)

MIAMI -- Florida voters could be asked in November to reverse their 2000 decision to build a multibillion dollar high-speed rail line between Tampa, Orlando and Miami.

Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday announced a statewide petition campaign to repeal the constitutional amendment that authorized the bullet train. Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, will head the effort to collect 480,000 signatures to put the measure back on the ballot.

''I can understand the allure of the bullet train,'' Bush said. ``But we're dealing with public policy here, and the cost of this, in my opinion, is extraordinary.''

The governor's move comes one year after one of his highest-profile political disappointments: failing to persuade Republican lawmakers during last session to send the bullet train measure back to voters.

This year is no different. On Wednesday, a House committee killed legislation that would have sent the issue to voters. The Senate is unlikely to take up the measure, either, Senate President Jim King said.

''Would I like to see the citizens to have another opportunity? I'm not even sure about that. I don't feel comfortable going in an aggressive fashion for repeal,'' King said.

Bush has been opposed to the train since before voters approved it. The success of the train amendment, and one in 2002 to reduce class sizes, prompted Bush and Republican leaders to try to make it harder to change the state's Constitution through citizen petitions.

Bush, along with King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, has backed away from attempts to repeal the class-size amendment, popular in fast-growing communities with crowded schools.

Instead, lawmakers have sought to require future proposed constitutional amendments to include cost estimates.

The first leg of the train, from Tampa to Orlando, has an estimated price tag of more than $2 billion and wouldn't be up and running until at least 2009.

The Orlando-to-Miami leg is expected to be even more expensive.

Gallagher will be heading up the Derail the Bullet Train committee, an organization started by Palm Beach County leaders seeking a repeal of the measure.

The campaign will give Gallagher, a potential candidate for governor in 2006, statewide exposure as he gears up to run.

Gallagher said that paying for high-speed rail could take money from road-building projects, and even put Florida in such crushing debt that its bond rating could suffer. He rattled off a list of projects, including improvements to the Palmetto Expressway in Miami-Dade.

''These are concrete projects with known benefits,'' Gallagher said. ``The high speed rail is unknown.''

Friday, March 5, 2004

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