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    U.S. funds for fast train tied to state stake

    U.S. House members want Legislature's assurances it is committed to the project.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 12, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Some members of Florida's congressional delegation on Monday questioned the state's commitment to high-speed rail, seeking assurances from state legislators before trying to get millions more in federal dollars for the voter-mandated project.

    Planners have asked Congress and the Legislature for $4.5-million each. The project already has received $3-million from the federal government and $4.5-million from the state, though none of the federal money has been spent.

    "The question that we need to discuss is whether we are committed to high-speed rail," said U.S. Rep. Corrinne Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat and transportation committee member. "The state has to come back and talk to us."

    State Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, told Brown and others in town Monday to meet with state lawmakers on myriad issues that plans were continuing and that already six to seven companies from around the world have expressed interest in partially financing Florida's high speed rail.

    "There's that much interest," said Sebesta, chairman of the Senate transportation committee. "We don't think it's appropriate for tons of tax dollars to be spent. . . . It should be supplemental to private money."

    U.S. Rep. John Mica, the Winter Park Republican who heads the U.S. House transportation committee, said Washington needs Florida to make decisions about high-speed rail by early next year if the state hopes to get federal money.

    "If we don't have projects, then the money will go to other states," Mica said.

    Voters amended the state Constitution in 2000 requiring state leaders to begin construction of a high-speed rail system by November 2003. It would ultimately link Florida's five major urban areas.

    But Brown cited bills pending in the state House and Senate calling for a referendum to repeal the high-speed rail amendment. The bills, sponsored by Democrats, haven't advanced in the Republican-dominated Legislature this session.

    The first leg is expected to be built along Interstates 275 and 4 between St. Petersburg and Orlando, with stops in Tampa and Lakeland. Pinellas County recently donated 50 acres near the airport, worth at least $2-million.

    The estimated cost of the first leg ranges from $1.2-billion to more than $6-billion, depending on the speed and design. It would begin running in 2007. The first several million dollars is needed for an environmental study and a ridership survey.

    A second leg would be in South Florida.

    While legislators assured their federal counterparts that Florida is proceeding, they acknowledged the 2003 timetable is ambitious.

    "The people have spoken. It is part of our Constitution," said Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration. "I have a lot of concerns that we won't meet the timetable of 2003."

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