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Officials toss their 2 cents in on new rail

County Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley's letter urges the Legislature not to forget the little guys when planning the high-speed rail.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- Before any bill regarding high-speed rail gets too far in the Legislature, Hernando County government leaders hope to persuade top lawmakers to remember the little guys outside the train's proposed path.

Rail might be an important part of Florida's transportation system, but its construction should not come at the expense of transit needs, County Metropolitan Planning Organization Chairman Chris Kingsley wrote on behalf of his colleagues to the Senate president, House speaker and the local legislative delegation.

"As a sizable part of the Tampa Bay commutershed, Hernando County residents must each day travel throughout the region, going to work or supporting the area's businesses," Kingsley wrote. "Hence, any negative impact on the movement of commuters, goods and services within Florida's smaller urban areas would undoubtedly result in considerable harm to the state's economy.

"Also, as contained in state law, mobility must be provided for all citizens, not just for those for whom high-speed rail would be available."

At the very least, Kingsley said, the Legislature should not plan any rail system without cooperation and coordination with all 25 MPOs, echoing the stance taken by the state Metropolitan Planning Organization Advisory Council.

"We're very serious about it and we hope they pay attention," said Kingsley, also chairman of the Hernando County Commission.

The county has some influential lawmakers in its corner.

Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, said the Hernando MPO's position is "probably exactly right." The proponents will get the time to see whether they can provide what they promised, McKay said.

If not, he said, "we'll just have to go from there."

House Transportation Committee Chairman David Russell, R-Brooksville, has filed a bill that would pass the issue to a group that would study the possible funding sources, routes and related matters. If the project proves feasible and equitable, so it won't hurt other projects such as the pending widening of Interstate 4, he expected the committee might recommend moving ahead using state money.

If not, Russell said, it's more than likely the issue might go back to voters, asking if they want to pay the amount needed to create a rail system.

"At this point I don't know if we've been given a funding mandate," Russell said.

In November, 53 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing creation of a high-speed rail system linking the state's five major metropolitan areas, with construction to begin in 2003. It did not include a provision on how to pay for the project's estimated cost of $6-billion to $22-billion.

Hernando County voters narrowly opposed the amendment, 51 percent to 49 percent.

Senate President Pro Tem Ginny Brown-Waite, who is from Hernando County, also harbored reservations about the rail proposal. Still, she acknowledged, representatives from MPOs in larger areas, including those in Orlando and Polk County, have told her they want to see the project proceed.

Smaller ones, meanwhile, are lining up with Hernando County, Brown-Waite said.

So far, only Hernando and Sarasota-Manatee MPOs have contacted the Senate president's office and none has written to the House Transportation Committee. The Metropolitan Planning Organization Advisory Council is working to assess the myriad bills being filed, which would do everything from asking voters to repeal the November amendment to fully funding the rail system.

"If we had a surplus, if it could be proven it doesn't require a lifetime of government subsidies, it might be a good idea," Brown-Waite said of high-speed rail.

But she remained unconvinced that a system would ever become self-sufficient or that it would solve air quality problems. People getting off the train probably still would need to rent cars to get around the big cities, she said.

Several other top officials also oppose the project, including Gov. Jeb Bush and House Speaker Tom Feeney.

Another group that holds sway is gathering momentum for the rail, though. Sponsors for a House measure that would push the project forward with full funding include Rules Vice Chairman Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland; Competitive Commerce Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales; Healthy Communities Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon; and Speaker Pro Tem Sandra Murman, R-Tampa.

"What's still on the table is what is the vision of the full system of high-speed rail," said Howard Glassman, Metropolitan Planning Organization Advisory Council executive director. "The term high-speed rail has so many different meanings now, depending on the bill you look at."

He and others expected a heated, lengthy debate on the issue before it gets resolved.

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