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Bullet train issue may still be alive

By JEAN HELLER
Published November 3, 2004

Better financing, memorable TV ads and confusing ballot language all contributed to the successful campaign to strip the bullet train from the state Constitution, leaders on both sides said Wednesday.

But while Floridians voted almost 2-1 to repeal the constitutional mandate for a statewide high-speed rail system, the issue may not be dead.

A mandate for a bullet train still exists in state law - dating back 20 years - and it could be built eventually, one key lawmaker said.

"If a way can be found that it won't bankrupt Florida, we will have high-speed rail some day," said Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "I do want to see a 300-mile-an-hour train zipping across Florida."

Sebesta supported repeal of the constitutional amendment. He favors a bullet train only if there are significant funding contributions from the private sector and from the federal government, neither of which was forthcoming in the years of planning since the amendment passed in 2000.

But even the pro-train people hinted they might try again.

"We've won one, they've won one; we're calling it even - for now," said Ken Walton, executive director of The Rail Truth, which spearheaded the advertising campaign to keep the bullet train. Walton said his group was assessing where to go from here.

The factors that went into the repeal included better fundraising by Floridians for Responsible Spending, the political action committee leading the repeal drive and fronted by Gov. Jeb Bush and Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer.

Incomplete financial reports that don't include the last month of the campaign show the group collected more than $1.3-million, compared to $386,000 for The Rail Truth in the same period. (The Rail Truth collected another $730,000 during the last month, but figures were not yet available for the repeal effort.)

That financing allowed repeal advocates to mount an advertising blitz in October that warned of dire consequences if the train stayed: slowed hurricane recovery, cancellations of millions of dollars in needed roadwork across the state, cuts in education spending and, perhaps, even a state income tax.

While the threats were exaggerated, they turned the 265,000-vote plurality that passed the bullet train amendment four years ago into nearly a 1.9-million-vote margin to kill it.

There also were questions of the ballot language, which forced voters who wanted the train to vote no on the repeal. It was worded that way because state law requires that a change to the Constitution come in an affirmative vote.

"You had to vote no to mean yes, and that has to have confused people," Walton said. "We have anecdotal evidence that it did."

Walton said he could not envision anyone challenging Tuesday's results, although it is possible that C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the Lakeland businessman who contributed $2.7-million of his own money to pass the amendment in 2000, could mount another try.

Dockery did not return phone calls Wednesday.

Both Sebesta and Bush said Wednesday that putting the cost of high-speed rail in the repeal amendment, a new legislative requirement, helped voters make up their minds.

"In 2000, it was such a warm and fuzzy feel-good issue that it was bound to pass," Sebesta said. "It didn't say anything about what kind of train it would be, who would pay for it or how much it would cost."

Bush said he thought that the state estimate of a $25-billion cost swayed voters.

"I think putting a price on the ballot ... was a good thing," he said. "... It helped discerning voters make the right choices, and I think they did."

Left in limbo is the future of the High Speed Rail Authority, the group formed by the legislature in 2001 to shepherd the bullet train project through planning, contracting and construction. Its next scheduled meeting is Wednesday in Orlando.

"The Tuesday vote repealed the constitutional amendment, but it didn't repeal the state statute that created the authority," said Frederick Dudley, a Tallahassee lawyer who is chairman of the authority. "Legally, the vote doesn't mean we have to abandon high-speed rail, but as a political reality, it does kill it."

Dudley said he would recommend to his board that all funding for consulting work be cut off retroactively to Nov. 3, and that meetings of the board cease at least until after next year's legislative session ends.

"I'm going to recommend that the state statute creating the authority be modified to a more traditional passenger rail system or just be repealed entirely," Dudley said.

Asked if he thought voters were confused by the ballot language, he said, "That's a question above my pay grade, but 62 percent in favor of repeal is a very strong signal. The voters have spoken - loudly."

[Last modified November 3, 2004, 19:49:06]


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