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High drama over high-speed rail

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Noelle C. Haner

Staff Writer

ORLANDO -- It is almost biblical.

The 2000 high-speed rail constitutional amendment has begot at least three other proposed constitutional amendments, resulting in a present-day election debate that raises two questions: Is the high-speed rail proposal the problem? Or, is Florida's citizen initiative-based constitutional amendment process at fault?

Many believe the answers to both questions may be "yes."

"This system is going to cost a heck of a lot of money -- billions and billions of dollars," says Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor. "And, the constitution is supposed to be a blueprint and framework for government. It is not appropriate to put policy issues like this in it. High-speed rail does not pass the test."

Florida voters will get a chance to weigh in on the debate Nov. 2 when they vote on two of the constitutional amendments that descended from the 2000 high-speed rail ballot vote.

In this election, Amendment 2 would push back the timeline for approving citizen initiatives that would become proposed constitutional amendments, and Amendment 6 would repeal the constitutional amendment requiring the state to build a statewide high-speed rail system.

Opponents in the debate have strong views.

"This is quite clearly something that the people want, and depending on the administration, it is also something the state wants," says Ken Walton, executive director of The Rail Truth, a pro-rail group. "It has been in Florida law to build a system from Tampa to Orlando since 1992, but absent it being in the constitution, there is no mandate it be done. The will of the people is being ignored."

Fred Leonhardt, an Orlando attorney and chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, feels differently.

"This type of matter should not be dealt with in the constitution," he says. "The constitution shouldn't be used to work out the trendy issues of the day like fast trains or the size of a classroom."

National debate

Florida is not alone in debating the question of high-speed rail. Whether or not to build rail systems that would travel at speeds of more than 120 mph has become a national argument.

In fact, according to Charlie Quandel, chairman of the High Speed Rail Ground Transportation Association, 11 high-speed rail systems currently are being discussed across the United States.

"Five of these systems are considered mature, meaning they have done environmental studies, and Florida is one of them," says Quandel. In addition to Florida, the mature systems include one in California, another in the Pacific Northwest, the MidWest Regional Rail Initiative and a system that would blanket the southeast United States from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, N.C.

The focus of the debate, says Quandel, is funding: How will the systems be funded? And who will pay for them?

A lot of money already has been spent on taking these mature systems from the conceptual stages to operation. While the state of California has spent $30 million, those involved with the MidWest system have spent $150 million.

Florida's High Speed Rail Authority has spent more than $14 million on ridership, feasibility and environmental studies, along with public workshops, hearings and contract negotiations, for just the first two phases of the state's planned 1,272-mile system.

More money is needed on a national basis. Some $89.9 billion is necessary nationwide to get the 11 systems under discussion from the drawing table to groundbreaking.

Congress is on the case. Four different bills have been considered to make federal money available for high-speed rail projects. The most popular idea is to do it through tax credit bond issues. A bill to this effect has 135 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"There is a lot of support for meeting this need," says Gary Burns, a spokesman for Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park.

Florida fundamentals

Nearly three decades old, though, Florida's high-speed rail debate has risen above the traditional funding questions surrounding systems in other parts of the nation.

Here, it is a constitutional mandate.

True, the debate in Florida originally was fueled by government concerns over how to fund a statewide rail system. The debate began in 1976 with a legislative mandate to study the feasibility of building a system between Daytona Beach and St. Petersburg. Then-Gov. Bob Graham kept the torch lit, and in 1984, the state's first High Speed Rail Commission worked on plans for a system that would connect Orlando, Miami and Tampa.

Govs. Bob Martinez and Lawton Chiles ushered in the era of little government support for high-speed rail, and when Gov. Jeb Bush took office in 1998, many thought it signaled the final death blow to high-speed rail hopes in Florida. Bush immediately terminated all state funding for high-speed rail.

"High-speed rail failed continuously because of the constant change in leadership in Tallahassee," says state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, a driving force behind high-speed rail. "The attitude changed from one governor to the next."

The debate was just heating up, though.

Lakeland businessman Doc Dockery -- the state senator's husband -- entered the fray. Through a citizen's initiative, he was able to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2000, mandating the governor, the Cabinet and the Florida Legislature build a system connecting Florida's five-largest urban areas -- Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and Sarasota.

Florida voters liked the idea, with nearly 53 percent approving the amendment.

Railroaded

Since 2000, the ballot box has been ground zero for the state's rail debate, with the focus squarely on how to deal with the constitutional amendment.

In fact, even before the high-speed rail amendment was approved, its opponents -- who questioned how the state would pay for the multibillion-dollar system -- had created a constitutional amendment for the 2000 ballot that required all future constitutional amendments to come with a price tag, indicating the fiscal impact the amendment would have on the state. It also passed.

This year, amendments 2 and 6 pick up where the 2000 election left off.

Funding remains the biggest issue (see info box, "The Great Debate"). Bush and Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, led the charge to get Amendment 6 on the ballot, basing their opposition on the state's role in funding the system and what they perceive as a lack of private-sector involvement.

"There is no money automatically available in the transportation budget for high-speed rail," says Gallagher. "High-speed rail should be built by the private sector. I don't think the state should be burdened by a financial commitment to build it."

Proponents of rail disagree.

"This would be a true public-private partnership. Every transportation project starts with some government funds," insists state Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland.

Constitutional question

Then there is Amendment 2.

Leonhardt believes Amendment 2 would help prevent policy issues, such as high-speed rail, from becoming constitutional amendments by pushing back the deadline. Amendment 2 calls for presenting petitions to the state for a proposed ballot amendment by Feb. 1 of the year of the general election.

"The high-speed rail amendment popped up 91 days ahead of the 2000 election. It left little time for people to debate the issue. Some people believe that if there had been just a week or two more it wouldn't have passed," explains Leonhardt.

The hope, he adds, is that the Feb. 1 deadline will allow the Legislature to take a look at the ballot amendments during its regular session and take up those policy issues better suited for state statute than constitutional mandates.

"These issues should be handled by the 160 people we elect to serve as the board of directors of the state," Leonhardt adds. "The Legislature is better equipped."

So what happens to high-speed rail if the amendments pass and the high-speed rail constitution mandate is repealed?

"It doesn't mean it's over," says Sen. Dockery. "It may just take two more years until Gov. Bush is gone before construction can begin."

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While I agree that stuff like this doesn't belong in the state constitution, I'll continue to support high speed rail as long as they keep forcing us to vote on it.

It's a legal process. Maybe the process should be changed, but it's already there. Jeb is a crook for not funding the process further the last 4 years.

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I'll be voting for it again. I amazed that the amendment placed on the ballot is an outright lie. It states that we'll saved $25 - $30 billion by not building this statewide system. However, it fails to mention the billions of dollars needed in extra road construction, if it isn't built.

Nevertheless, this repeal issue is beyond the act of building a statewide high speed rail system. I knew exactely what I was voting for 4 years ago, when I voted for it.

I resent the Governor not carrying out his duty to do the will of the people. What's the purpose of voting, if the Govenor's actions basically tell you, your vote really doesn't matter.

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^I kind of view it and public financed roads and highways in a similar fashion. Roads like the Wonderwood Connector are needed, but they will always be an expense and never turn a profit.

At least with bullet rail, its ticket revenue will always make the state money. Another thing is that the public won't be entirely funding this system.

It should be clear by now that we can't keep cutting down trees and expanding sprawl to expand our road system. We need alternative methods of transporation. Spending billions for more roads is not the answer.

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It took me almost 7 hours this weekend to drive from Miami to Daytona. That's a trip that's normally 4 to 4.5. I thought about high speed rail the whole way there. I think of it like the the Metrorail in Miami. The rail line was a dismal failure when it first opened. It was a bad political route and people just weren't used to it. However, the Metrorail has certainly grown into it's position. The city has not only learned to live with it but embrace it. It could be argued that a lot of the highrise boom going on in Miami's downtowns wouldn't be without the rail line. Development is following transit now.

It may take a few years, but eventually Floridians will embrace high speed rail as well. Cities will learn to connect their own light rail and bus systems to the stations. Taxi and rental car services will pop up.

The money is a valid concern but a misleading one usually. High spped rail is an investment in Florida's cities. It's a precaution against overcrowded highways, ie a money saver. It's also a step into the future that Florida desperately needs.

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Examples of Bullet Train Connections - Times - Fares:

Miami to West Palm Beach: 40 min - $7.00

West Palm Beach to Cocoa: 1 hr 13 min - $13.50

Cocoa to Jacksonville: 1 hr 30 min - $16.50

Cocoa to Orlando: 33 min - $6.00

Orlando to Gainesville: 1 hr 3 min - $11.35

Orlando to Tampa: 56 min - $9.60

Pensacola to Tallahassee: 1 hr 48 min - $20.00

Tallahassee to Jacksonville: 1 hr 30 min - $16.70

Tallahassee to Gainesville: 1 hr 24 min - $15.60

Gainesville to Tampa: 1 hr 12 min - $13.30

Tampa to Ft. Myers: 1 hr 7 min - $12.65

Ft. Myers to Miami: 1 hr 24 min - $15.65

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I feel sorry for the idiot who buys a $7.00 ticket to ride the Bullet Train from Miami to West Palm Beach. But then again, with this new rail servicing the same area as Tri-Rail, I wonder if there will be any competition? Tri-Rail is cheaper, but the Bullet Train is faster. Hmm.....

I hope the people of this state wake up and realize that it's time to stop thinking about costs and 4-year political terms. We need to view this as long-term environmental and mobility issues. If I was 18, it' would have my vote!

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I am surprised how this isn't a partisan issue. It seemed that way at the beginning, & it seems that way with most projects. Conservatives favor sprawl and shun fiscally exorbitant projects, while liberals are more progressive & support environmentally friendly expenditures with less regard to cost.

But seeing how both democrats AND republicans can agree that gridlock is crippling Florida's roads, is certainly a good thing to see. Therefore, those who vote won't be taking a "democrat" or "republican" approach, they will be voting on wether they feel it is right. Shame on Bush for disregarding the will of the people, it's almost like Florida is in the hands of a dictator :P .

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I feel sorry for the idiot who buys a $7.00 ticket to ride the Bullet Train from Miami to West Palm Beach.  But then again, with this new rail servicing the same area as Tri-Rail, I wonder if there will be any competition?  Tri-Rail is cheaper, but the Bullet Train is faster.  Hmm.....

Well, it'll depend on the connections and where the stations are as well.

I had to go up to Palm Beach 5 different times earlier this year and I would have gladly paid 7 bucks to get there in 40 minutes as opposed to the 2 1/2 hours it took me driving. They were time sensitive meetings not that close to any tri-rail stops. Not being very familiar with the transit system there, I chose to drive. Same argument could probably be made for high speed rail I suppose.

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Darn! I just checked, and about 60% voted YES on Amendment 6, which pretty much sends our bullet train down the toilet. My mom told me that the ballot was worded terribly, and it made the bullet train sound like the worst thing to happen to Florida. So that stinks....

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Darn!  I just checked, and about 60% voted YES on Amendment 6, which pretty much sends our bullet train down the toilet.  My mom told me that the ballot was worded terribly, and it made the bullet train sound like the worst thing to happen to Florida.  So that stinks....

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Yes, it appears to be going down in flames, and yes it was worded very badly. I have no faith in this electorate. I guess we'll have to put it up for vote in another two years.

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In revote, Florida bullet train knocked off the tracks

By MIKE BRANOM

Associated Press Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. - A bullet train network approved by voters in 2000 was knocked off the tracks Tuesday with opponents convincing voters this time around that the project was an expensive boondoggle.

In early returns, the constitutional amendment to repeal the train passed with 3,306,848 votes, or 63 percent, as opposed to 1,902,730 votes, or 37 percent, to save it. That was with 5,776, or 80 percent, of Florida's 7,241 precincts reporting.

Although no construction had started, the first leg connecting Orlando and Tampa had been laid out and a contractor was selected. The cost of that first leg was estimated at more than $2.3 billion.

The train was to eventually connect the two areas with Miami.

"It shows that Florida citizens know fiscal responsibility is very important," said state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who shepherded Amendment 6 through the petition process and to the ballot.

Backers of the repeal collected $3.3 million, a sum that bullet train supporters couldn't counter.

Hundreds of citizens donated to the anti-train drive, prompting Gallagher to praise it as a "grassroots effort." But the vast majority of the money came from a road builders' political action committee, two theme parks upset that the line would stop on Disney property and not theirs, and a deep-pocketed booster of Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP.

"I think Big Money, asphalt and concrete prevailed," said Ken Walton, executive director of the pro-train The Rail Truth. "We were outspent dramatically: four- or five-to-one. We didn't have a single television ad, and they had a significant amount."

But Gallagher countered that when the train was voted into the constitution four years ago, a handful of citizens put forth much of the funding.

Gallagher and Gov. Jeb Bush decried the rail's price tag of $25 million over 30 years, as estimated by a state panel for a network connecting southeastern Florida with Orlando and the Tampa Bay area .

"This campaign is about responsible spending and affording Floridians the opportunity to take a second look," Gallagher said.

Bush and Gallagher said if voters were serious about ending gridlock, killing the train would free money better spent on regional transportation.

"We have a very good plan - 5-year, 10-year and further out - for roads in this state," Gallagher said.

Train supporters said they wouldn't give up, although Walton believed it might be necessary to wait until Bush finishes his second term.

"Maybe in two years we'll have a more visionary governor who can look toward a 21st-century transportation system, and possible include high speed rail as a viable alternative," Walton said.

Bullet trains are being studied in many other regions, such as California and the Midwest, but Florida's project was the furthest along. With Floridians killing the project, it could free federal money for the other regions.

In Canada, jobs depended on the vote. A consortium led by Montreal-based Bombardier was selected in November to run the project, and the company stood to gain $500 million if the train got rolling.

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"We have a very good plan - 5-year, 10-year and further out - for roads in this state," Gallagher said.

Train supporters said they wouldn't give up, although Walton believed it might be necessary to wait until Bush finishes his second term.

I admit, I'd figure this would happen after I read the flat out lie printed on the ballot concerning the bullet rail.

I also still don't agree with the plan for continuing to pave over Florida with new roads.

Well, I guess we'll just have to wait after Bush leaves.

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I just think they play tirck on the people in florida.

The statement was worded poorly. If you only read the first few lines, u will automatically think that it is for the train. Besides, it also explain that, it will cost a lot of money for other more important fields that need money. I dont think this explanation should exist on the ballot cuz it is like personal opinions and do not have prove.

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