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Heading down the fast track to poor policy

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000

One of the most persistent dreams in Florida has concerned high-speed rail, or a "bullet train," that would link Tampa Bay to Orlando to Miami.

From the mid-1980s until early last year, state officials studied it. They drew maps. They talked a lot. They even lined up companies for a "public-private partnership."

But Gov. Jeb Bush killed the deal as one of his first decisions. There were too many questions about ridership, environmental impact and cost (up to $8-billion).

"The only way I could see for this thing to work," Bush explained, "would be for the state to accept greater and greater liability, which was never the intention."

But now there is a petition drive under way that would amend the state Constitution to require Bush and the state Legislature to build high-speed rail. It already has enough signatures to force a Supreme Court review and could be on the ballot this November.

"It is hereby declared," the amendment says in part, "to be in the public interest that a high-speed, ground transportation system consisting of a monorail, fixed guideway or magnetic levitation system, capable of speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour, be developed and operated in the state of Florida ...

"The Legislature, the Cabinet and the Governor are hereby directed to proceed with the development of such a system. ..." The amendment requires construction to begin before Nov. 1, 2003, linking "the five largest urban areas of the state as determined by the Legislature."

The wording is quite precise, isn't it? What happens if a train is capable of only a lousy 115 mph -- does that make it unconstitutional? Would the Supreme Court be called in to order the engineer to speed up?

This amendment is being pushed by a group called Floridians for 21st Century Travel Connections and Choices. Upon closer inspection, this turns out to be the creation of a well-known Lakeland businessman named C.C. "Doc" Dockery, who has put up almost every cent of the $150,000 the group reports so far.

"I feel very strongly about it," Dockery told me. "I suppose I'm willing to spend whatever it takes."

I apologized for being a cynic, then asked Dockery what his angle was. Does he own land along the right of way? Does he have a secret deal in which he gets to drive the choo-choo?

"My angle, honestly, is that I love the state of Florida," he answered. "We are getting closer and closer to gridlock. Have you ever seen an accident on I-4 tie up traffic for six hours at a time? I see airplanes sitting at the end of runways, waiting for a time slot."

Dockery, whose wife, Paula, is a Republican state representative, is on the board of Florida 2012, the group preparing an Olympics bid. That group's Ed Turanchik told me that Florida 2012 has no official position on Dockery's efforts, although Turanchik personally likes it.

"I think Doc's program has a long way to go," Turanchik said. More realistically, he said, the Olympics group is working for a public-private rail effort linking St. Petersburg, Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando and Port Canaveral.

The state's attorney general, Bob Butterworth, says Dockery's petition is misleading and deals with too many subjects, which would give the Supreme Court grounds for killing it.

I posed a third potential objection to Dockery. Is this is a proper use of our state Constitution? Shouldn't we stick to more basic and broad themes, instead of cluttering it up with bullet trains or other shopping list items?

"You could have a philosophical argument as to whether any amendment is appropriate," he answered. "I happen to think that this one is -- when you have a great number of Florida citizens who are interested in a subject, and it is not addressed with any degree, then this is the only means left."

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