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Funding for train mystifies officials

Voters approved the amendment, but opponents say the price tag of $6-billion to $22-billion hasn't sunk in.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE and LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


Now that Florida voters have approved a measure ordering the state to build a high-speed rail network, supporters of the proposal say the next step is a no-brainer.

Next year, they say, state lawmakers will meet, find some funding, and order the laying of rail linking Florida's five largest urban areas by a 2003 deadline.

"The people have spoken," said John Sowinski, a spokesman for the group that backed the proposal and spent $1.5-million to help get it approved. "Typically, when the people speak on an issue like this, their elected representatives respect their will."

Voters approved the measure with 53 percent of the vote. A majority of voters in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Citrus counties all approved it. In the Tampa Bay area, just Hernando County rejected it.

But for a proposal with a price tag ranging from $6-billion to $22-billion, which is opposed by state power brokers that include Gov. Jeb Bush and incoming Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney, it may not be as simple as all that.

Feeney said Wednesday he plans to meet with Lakeland multimillionaire C.C. "Doc" Dockery, who headed the effort to get the issue on the ballot, to see whether he has any ideas on how to fund the plan.

"I'll be dealing with Doc Dockery and this proposal for a miracle train. I hope he has a miracle for funding it," Feeney said.

Sowinski acknowledged the cost of building the rail network will be expensive, perhaps as much as $16-million per mile of track for a train that will speed along at 120 mph or more.

But he said, "It's in the same league as other transportation improvements."

Sowinski said the network could be built in stages beginning by the Nov. 1, 2003, deadline called for by the amendment. And it can be paid for in the same way as toll roads.

He suggested that private investors might be interested, and the state could sell development rights along rail corridors.

Opponents hinted that the fight against high-speed rail may eventually end up back on the ballot. They say voters may be asked in 2002 to repeal the Constitutional amendment.

Or they might be asked to approve a funding mechanism that opponents say will clearly spell out the initiative's astronomical cost, leading voters to reject funding and cut the legs out from under the proposal.

"When you read it, it sounds wonderful," said Robert Burleson, president of a road-building group called the Florida Transportation Builders Association. "It basically sounds like somebody's going to build it for free."

Others suggest various legal challenges, including one focusing on the passage of an amendment by a mere majority when a user fee or tax is involved. In this case, the ticket fee can be viewed as a tax, some say.

Feeney said some have talked about putting the question to voters and asking them whether they'd like to drain funding for education or Medicaid for a few years to fund the train.

"Or maybe we could ask voters if they want to get rid of the prohibition against an income tax and fund it," Feeney said. "This was a train that came without a set of instructions."

Said opponent Don Crane, "That will quell enthusiasm in a big hurry."

Lawmakers might simply choose to ignore the amendment as the Legislature did with other mandates that weren't self-activating, including an initiative to make English Florida's official language or a requirement to make polluters pay the primary cost of cleaning the Everglades.

In the case of the Everglades cleanup, Florida's Supreme Court ruled that it couldn't force lawmakers' hands.

"But the difference here is that there's a date on this one," said Burleson. "With the other initiatives, you could kind of make an argument that maybe things were proceeding along. Here, we have a time certain by which we have to begin construction."

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