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    Bill puts train on design track

    The Legislature sends the governor a bill creating an authority that will design intrastate rail transit.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Engineers soon will start designing routes for 120-mph bullet trains to serve Central Florida, under a bill the Legislature sent Thursday to the governor.

    Lawmakers agreed to spend $4.5-million on a nine-person rail authority to start designing the project and wooing private investors.

    "If you want to entice private industry . . . then you have to give them something to work with," said Rep. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican and one of the rail's biggest champions in the House.

    Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to sign the bill, a spokeswoman said.

    The measure comes six months after voters approved a constitutional amendment that requires the state to begin building a rail line by November 2003. The rail will link St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando and, eventually, Miami.

    Not all members of the House wanted to create the authority. The alternative, narrowly defeated, would have been to create a study commission instead to look at things such as available technology.

    "We do not want to create an agency, a four-year board, before we even know what technology we are going to use," said Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration.

    But Stacy Ritter, a Coral Springs Democrat, urged her colleagues to approve the authority and oppose the study commission.

    "Please don't spend tax dollars to study this again," Ritter said.

    The authority board will have nine members: three each appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney.

    Its duties will include arranging the preliminary engineering and environmental studies needed to construct the rail. The authority must look at times of service, stops and what state and local governments can contribute to the project. It also must estimate the cost of running the rail for the next 30 years.

    The authority can apply for federal matching funds for the project.

    That's the part most important to Dockery, whose husband, C.C. Dockery, was the brains and the money behind the petition drive.

    "He was very excited," Dockery said of her husband's reaction to passage of the bill. "Apparently several people got to him before I did," she added.

    A former chairman of the Florida High Speed Rail Transportation Commission, C. C. Dockery spent at least $2.7-million of his own money on the campaign that put the bullet train on the ballot last November.

    The train is estimated to cost up to $21.9-billion, and state leaders have said they may have to raise taxes to pay for it.

    In addition, lawmakers directed the Florida Department of Transportation to put out feelers in the private industry to gauge interest in helping finance, build and operate the bullet train.

    Feeney, who initially voted against the authority but supported the bill as a whole, said he was cautious but optimistic about the project.

    "I hope that this works. I hope taxpayers get the bang for their buck," Feeney said.

    "I'm a skeptic."

    - Times Political Editor Tim Nickens contributed to this report.

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