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High-Speed Rail -- Constitutional Amendment

Voters will have their say on an unusual bid to rewrite the state's constitution to force the construction of a high-speed railway.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


Should Florida build a fast train to link its biggest cities?

You get to decide. Not the Legislature, not the Cabinet, not the governor -- you.

Frustrated by government's lack of enthusiasm for a high-speed rail system, backers decided to take the issue to the citizens. Floridians will see a question on the ballot this general election that would actually change the Constitution to force government to start laying high-speed rail tracks to link the state's five largest cities by 2003. The Legislature would later decide which urban areas should be linked.

Florida has long flirted with the idea of high-speed rail as a way to ease clogged highways. But shortly after taking office, Gov. Jeb Bush killed the state's $6.3-billion high-speed rail plan, saying there were too many uncertainties.

A wealthy Lakeland man, C.C. "Doc" Dockery, 67, vowed to keep the project alive. He has spent more than $1.5-million of his own money to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Dockery, a Republican who served on former Gov. Bob Martinez's high-speed rail commission in the late 1980s and early 1990s, says the state needs to begin high-speed rail now, before traffic gets worse.

He said a network of fast trains -- which clip along at more than 120 miles per hour -- would help elderly people who can no longer drive, tourists, and people weary of "road rage and air rage." He also said the trains could help during hurricane evacuations.

Dockery's political committee -- Floridians for 21st Century Travel Connections & Choices -- collected 624,000 signatures from Floridians to get the high-speed rail question on the ballot, Dockery said.

But there are many opponents. The Florida Transportation Commission, appointed by the governor, has gone on record opposing it. So has Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Thomas Barry.

Opponents argue that amending the Constitution is not the proper way to do transportation planning. And, they argue that the ballot question doesn't say how much the project would cost, or how it would be paid for. Estimates range from $17-million to $20-million a mile.

Dockery suggests that the state set up a "turnpike-like authority" to issue bonds, collect franchise fees, and build the rail system in increments.

ON THE BALLOT

BALLOT TITLE: Florida Transportation Initiative for statewide high speed monorail, fixed guideway, or magnetic levitation system.

BALLOT SUMMARY: To reduce traffic and increase travel alternatives, this amendment provides for development of a high-speed monorail, fixed guideway or magnetic levitation system linking Florida's five largest urban areas and providing for access to existing air and ground transportation facilities and services by directing the state and/or state authorized private entity to implement the financing, acquisition of right-of-way, design, construction and operation of the system, with construction beginning by Nov. 1, 2003.

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