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    Senators see deal to study fast train

    With their sights on a $6-million allocation, lawmakers envision an authority that would study details.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Legislators are nearing an agreement to create a high-speed rail authority and start engineering work on a fast train that would run between Tampa and Orlando.

    "So we got a deal?" asked Senate President John McKay on Tuesday after meeting with the Senate sponsors of conflicting bills and Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Barry.

    State Sens. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, and John Laurent, R-Bartow, reached agreement on a $6-million state allocation. A newly created authority would examine detailed planning and try to get environmental permits before the state turns to a private contractor to build the $22-billion system.

    Both senators are optimistic about getting matching federal money in the wake of comments made Monday by U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park. Mica urged legislators to take action by June and take advantage of available federal funds to help.

    Also Tuesday, a House committee approved a bill that would create a commission to study potential financing, establish a route and select the technology that would be used.

    House Speaker Tom Feeney said he's willing to take a look at the Senate proposal.

    "Six million is a lot of money this year, but the Senate is always willing to spend more money," said Feeney.

    The funding allocation still must go through both chambers before reaching Gov. Jeb Bush for approval. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, one of the House sponsors of the fast train bill, said he was "very pleased" with the Senate agreement.

    "This is a very good step in the right direction," Ross said.

    Legislators are looking at two likely corridors: the median strip on Interstate 4 and the CSX Railroad right of way.

    "I don't think we'll find too many endangered species in the I-4 median," Sebesta said.

    An economic impact study completed for the State Department of Transportation last week sees the I-4 corridor as the most cost effective alternative. The study predicts $46-million in benefits by 2010 and $1.4-billion by 2030.

    The study analyzed employment from construction and businesses that would locate in proximity to stations that would be built in Orlando, Lakeland, Tampa and several other cities along the route.

    A spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush said he is waiting to see what legislators do before making a decision on the high-speed proposal.

    State officials are moving cautiously in response to a Constitutional amendment approved by voters last year. The prime backer was C.C. Dockery, a Lakeland businessman who put almost $3-million of his own money into a campaign to win approval of a high-speed rail project in Florida.

    State officials have generally opposed any move to use state funds for the project. Laurent and Sebesta say they hope to attract private companies that would be interested in building it.

    Dockery, contacted at his office in Lakeland, said he was unaware of the Senate deal but will "salute" anything the senators agreed upon, especially if it includes the creation of an authority that will begin looking at environmental permitting concerns.

    Laurent argues that the state is much more likely to sell the idea to private companies that might actually build the system if they have identified a corridor where the train can be built and obtained the necessary environmental permits.

    "I've taken a big step backwards from saying "we'll build it' to leaving the final say to the Legislature," Laurent said.

    But since all of the state's voters approved a high-speed rail project, other areas, including Miami to Orlando, would also be studied, the senators agreed.

    McKay said he wants to be sure that citizens in Pensacola, Naples and other areas that are unlikely to benefit from the train are not shortchanged.

    The Senate proposal would bring the issue back to legislators next January for a decision on what to do next.

    One option some legislators have suggested would put the issue back before voters in 2002 with a cost estimate and a question: "Do you still feel the same way?"

    Sebesta said the delay also would allow the newly created authority to review and compile all of the reports that have been previously done on a high-speed rail proposal.

    The state spent almost $30-million studying a statewide high-speed rail system in the 1990s before scrapping it in 1999 in the face of a $6-billion price tag.

    The renewed willingness to take a look at a fast train has developed as a result of renewed hope that private industry and federal money might pick up most of the tab.

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