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Rail project needs more money fast

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Rail project needs more money fast

The Florida High Speed Rail Authority seeks $2.3 billion to meet voters' deadline.

By Scott Powers

Sentinel Staff Writer

May 18, 2004

The state panel planning a bullet-train system between Tampa and Orlando is under pressure to find much of its money this summer, so the authority is pressuring the system's private contractor to pony up what it can.

The Florida High Speed Rail Authority is about $2.3 billion short of the $2.6 billion it needs because the Florida Legislature and the federal government continue to refuse to contribute.

If the authority wants to build the system by the 2009 deadline mandated by voters in 2000, it better start looking fast for new sources of money, said state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg.

Sebesta, who supports the project, sounded much like the project's biggest opponents, including Gov. Jeb Bush and State Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher.

Bush and Gallagher are behind a petition drive to have the 2000 constitutional amendment repealed. Sebesta said opponents will have an easy campaign this fall if they can show there is no money for the project.

"I think they have about 60 days to come up with some funding for high-speed rail, and if they don't there will be a funeral for the project," Sebesta said of the authority members.

Authority member C.C. "Doc" Dockery of Lakeland disputed Sebesta's dire outlook.

"There is strong support for this," Dockery said.

With no federal and state money in sight, that leaves preferred contractor Fluor-Bombardier in the position of having to reconsider its financial commitment. Fluor, a Canadian partnership, was picked to design, build, operate and finance the train system last summer in large part because of the financial package it offered.

Fluor's pledge included a $250 million bond guarantee against operating costs and a $50 million letter of credit. Since November, the authority and Fluor have been negotiating the final terms and negotiators insisted they are close to a final contract.

But Monday, the authority told Fluor to restate its financial commitment, with the assumption that Fluor might find more money or more private investors.

For added pressure, the authority listened to a plea from the runner-up private partnership that wanted the job. Global Rail Consortium, a Korean-based partnership, asked that the authority start negotiating with both bidders to see who could deliver the most money. The authority did not agree outright, but told Global to come back in 30 days.

Dockery voted along with the others to seek a restatement of Fluor's financial package, but took strong exception to Sebesta's assessment.

He said there is plenty of support in the Legislature, just not in state leadership, which will change. And he predicted the repeal effort was heading to defeat, which would create an indisputable voter mandate in favor of the bullet train.

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