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Bullet train heading for success


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- In what may turn out to be the political sleeper of the election season, Florida voters on Tuesday were poised to order their government to spend billions to build a high-speed train network, starting in just three years.

How much will it cost? Who will pay for it? The constitutional amendment -- which was leading with about 58 percent of the votes counted -- doesn't say. It simply says the state must build a high-speed rail system to link Florida's five largest cities, starting in 2003. The Legislature must now decide which cities should be linked by the trains, which would speed along at more than 120 mph.

The Legislature also will have to figure out how to pay for the project. It has been derided by critics as an expensive boondoggle that will suck money from other state needs, such as road building and education.

But the man behind the fast train, 67-year-old C.C. "Doc" Dockery of Lakeland, says the high-speed rail network will help millions of Floridians who can't -- or don't want to -- drive. "We've got a great victory for those people who deserve an alternative to road rage and air rage," Dockery said Tuesday night.

Likely contenders for stops on the rail line include Tampa/St. Petersburg, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Jacksonville.

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

Dockery -- who sat on a long-ago high speed rail commission and still believes in the idea -- decided to take the issue to voters.

Dockery spent more than $2-million of his own money on advertising, legal advice and collecting more than 624,000 signatures to get it on the ballot.

"It might appear it's a sleeper, but not to me," Dockery said. "I've been working on it for 18 months."

No one seemed to take the train amendment seriously until Oct. 3, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the amendment met all the legal tests it needed to to go before voters. Opponents found themselves scrambling just a month before Election Day.

"I think the voters just didn't get the whole story," Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association, said Tuesday night. "I think the majority of people in Florida want high-speed rail. I'm just not sure they are going to want it as badly when they see what it will cost them."

Even though voters appeared to be giving the idea a thumbs-up, it may have a hard time making it through the state Legislature. Gov. Jeb Bush opposes it, as does incoming House Speaker Tom Feeney.

The opposition is, in fact, a who's-who list of Florida heavy hitters: leading business groups Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the state Department of Transportation, road builders, truckers, engineering associations, and at least eight county commissions.

The opponents said transportation planning should not be done through the Constitution, and complained the amendment didn't tell voters that their tax dollars would likely pay for the trains.

Dockery suggests that 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.

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