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    Time loss hampers speed rail protests

    Expecting the high court to reject the ballot issue, industry groups were not ready to mount a fight against the measure.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- With about three weeks left before the Nov. 7 election, opponents of a ballot measure to build a Florida high-speed train network are scrambling to persuade voters that it's a bad idea.

    "We're sort of caught with our pants down," said Bob Burleson, president of a road-building group called the Florida Transportation Builders Association. "The biggest enemy we're fighting is that people don't know what this is about."

    Opponents didn't raise money to fight the proposal because they thought the Florida Supreme Court would knock the issue off the ballot. But after deliberating for four months, the Supreme Court abruptly made a decision Oct. 3 to allow the issue to go before voters on Nov. 7.

    "The Supreme Court didn't do anything and didn't do anything, and then -- bam. We were surprised," said Don Crane of St. Petersburg, who runs a group called Floridians for Better Transportation, which opposes the ballot measure.

    "I was shocked," Burleson said. "We absolutely thought it had no chance at all."

    On Friday, Associated Industries of Florida, a leading business group, joined a growing list of opponents that includes the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Gov. Jeb Bush. At a Tallahassee news conference, Associated Industries criticized the high-speed rail proposal, but AIF president Jon Shebel conceded that his group doesn't have enough time or money to mount a serious opposition campaign.

    "It's simply too late," Shebel said Friday.

    On Nov. 7, voters will be asked to approve the amendment to the state Constitution, which would force government to start building the high-speed rail network in 2003 to link Florida's five largest cities. The Legislature would decide which cities should be linked by the train, which would rocket along at 120 mph or faster.

    The amendment's first line may prove attractive to voters: "To reduce traffic congestion and provide alternatives to the traveling public," it says, then goes on to direct government to build the high-speed train.

    The high-speed rail initiative's chief backer, Lakeland Republican C.C. "Doc" Dockery, says voters should provide fast trains for people who can't -- or don't want to -- drive between Florida's largest cities.

    The opponents say transportation planning should not be done through the Constitution, and they say the amendment doesn't tell voters how much a high-speed rail network would cost -- or where the money would come from to pay for it. They say the multibillion dollar project will take money from other state priorities, like road building, education and environmental protection.

    Dockery denies this: He says the train can be financed by a special authority, similar to a turnpike authority, which would issue bonds and pay them off by collecting user fees and franchise fees from transportation vendors. The rail system, he said, could be built in sections, and when one section is paid for, the state could start another.

    He also says opponents who decry the train's cost -- estimated at $17-million to $20-million per mile -- are forgetting how much it costs to build roads. Improving and widening a 21-mile section of Interstate 4 between Polk County and downtown Tampa is expected to cost $16.7-million a mile, according to the state Department of Transportation. DOT spokesman Dick Kane points out that roads carry more people than trains do.

    "They are just throwing out scare tactics," Dockery said. "As far as I can see, it won't take one thin dime from road projects. This is the age of Republican compassion. I guess the business community is largely Republican. Where's the compassion for 3-million people who don't have cars or driver's licenses?"

    Dockery has some weighty opponents. Among them: Bush, the state DOT, road builders and the two top business groups. This week, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth tried a last-ditch strategy to get the court to knock the issue off the ballot -- even though, Butterworth noted, Florida's ballots have already been printed and shipped.

    When it ruled this month, the Supreme Court flatly stated that it would not hold any new hearings on the ballot issue. Butterworth requested one anyway. In his motion, Butterworth said the ballot language violates a state rule that says ballot questions can cover only one subject. The Supreme Court already has ruled that the ballot language passed that test.

    Working through an umbrella group called "Floridians for Responsible Transportation," the road builders are trying to get employers to stuff paycheck envelopes with fliers that say: "Vote No on Amendment #1. Vote No for Higher Taxes! Vote No for layoffs!"

    Dockery is bemused -- he says the very companies that build roads would likely get jobs building the new high-speed rail project.

    Opponents are making the rounds at Florida's newspapers, trying to generate editorials that urge voters to defeat the measure.

    Dockery says his opponents had plenty of time to prepare for Election Day -- he started his signature campaign a year ago. Dockery decided to push for a Constitutional amendment after Bush took office and abruptly killed an ongoing state plan to build high speed rail.

    Dockery hasn't prepared much of a public relations campaign. He used $1.5-million of his own money to get more than 600,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

    "I sure hope we can put something together to let people know what we're doing," Dockery said. "It seems like I've really got a fight on my hands."

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