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Session turns swiftly to roadwork

The state Senate already is poised to pass a $5-billion transportation plan.

legislature 2000
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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- On just the third day of the 2000 legislative session, the state Senate today expects to pass a major transportation bill even larger than the sweeping plan Gov. Jeb Bush proposed to accelerate road building across the state.

The Senate plan, which needs approval by the state House and the governor, would complete $5-billion worth of state road projects over the next 10 years, some of which already are under way.

Bush's Mobility 2000 plan, announced in January, would complete $4-billion in road projects over 10 years. The House is working on a plan similar to the Senate bill, but there are differences, and it may be several weeks before the House votes.

All of the plans share a major goal: unclog busy urban roadways soon to ease traffic and promote economic development.

"Florida's overburdened roadway system needs a shot in the arm. Without a billion-dollar boost, our roads will stay clogged and commerce will remain stagnant," Senate President Toni Jennings said in written statement.

A key feature exclusive to the Senate plan is a $450-million matching county grant program intended to encourage local road-building projects. The state would match a percentage of county money spent on road projects.

Counties can levy taxes on gas to help pay for transportation projects, and the Senate plan possibly could lead some counties to raise their gas taxes in order to win more grant money. But at a news conference Wednesday, Jennings said that was not the intention of the bill.

Sen. Daryl Jones, a Miami Democrat, failed Wednesday to amend the bill so that more money would go toward improving mass transportation, such as building or expanding light rail systems.

"I think mass transit will be an issue for more than just Miami over the next 10 years," Jones said. "I think ultimately that the Legislature will see the merits in including mass transportation in this bill."

Transportation experts say the state has a $20-billion backlog of road-building projects. Many are in the Tampa Bay area, including Interstate 275, portions of U.S. 19 and access roads to Tampa International Airport.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker John Thrasher said whatever differences exist between the bills likely will be resolved quickly. "The bottom line is this is an issue that is strongly supported by the governor, the speaker and the Senate president," spokeswoman Katie Baur said. "Whatever disagreements there are will be ironed out, and this package will be passed."

Bush communications director Justin Sayfie said the governor's staff is still studying the Senate bill. "We're confident the end result will be something everyone is satisfied with," he said.

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