Bush threatens to thwart high-speed rail
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- If private investors don't bear the financial risk for high-speed rail, Gov. Jeb Bush said Wednesday he will lead a campaign to overturn a constitutional amendment that mandates the costly system.
In a speech to the Economic Club of Florida, Bush said the amount of public risk will become clear in bids submitted by private contractors Feb. 10. As many as three companies are expected to bid.
"I will not support this if the people bidding don't take the ridership risk," Bush said. "It would be insane for the state to take the entrepreneurial risk of this enterprise."
His vow to lead a campaign to repeal the rail system drew immediate applause from the 200 business people in the audience.
The risk to Florida taxpayers, Bush said, depends on how many people actually use the system. If ridership doesn't meet projections, the revenue shortfall could be a drain on Florida's budget, he said.
Florida voters in 2000 amended the state Constitution to mandate high-speed rail linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami, with construction to start by November 2003. The project was largely the impetus of C.C. "Doc" Dockery of Lakeland, who spent $2.7-million of his own money to pass the amendment.
Dockery said Bush's concerns are unfounded.
"We would have the state issue bonds to cover the cost of building infrastructure, the tracks, stations and maintenance yards," said Dockery, a member of the High Speed Rail Authority. "That would be about $1.6-billion, which would cost $75-million a year."
With a total state transportation budget of more than $5-billion, Dockery estimates high-speed rail would account for 1.5 percent.
"It's something in my view that the state can afford in order to address the will of the people," he said. "There is no need to go back and ask the people to decide what they've already decided."
Bush said he admired Dockery's "tenacity," but said: "I'm not going to fall in love with a fast train, and I don't think the people of this state should, either. If it works, great."
The governor used Wednesday's forum to tout his fiscal record. He said Florida has been able to avoid deficits as large as other large states because of a policy of keeping taxes low, which he said broadens the economic base over time.
Even as Bush touted Florida's comparatively robust fiscal condition, an adviser was asking a legislative panel for money to stave off more layoffs and service cutbacks at Enterprise Florida, a public-private agency that promotes new jobs and trade with foreign countries.
Bush's economic development adviser, Pam Dana, told lawmakers that the $1.5-million was a "short-term fix" for a "precarious" condition. Enterprise Florida gets part of its budget from a $2-a-day tax on rental cars, and that industry has experienced a slowdown in business in the past 18 months. Lawmakers approved the extra money.
-- Times Staff Writer Jean Heller contributed to this report.
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