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Rapid rail push still at full steam

A Lakeland businessman who has championed the system now is writing a bill to keep things going.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000


C.C. Dockery, the Lakeland businessman who led what many regarded as a quixotic fight to bring high-speed rail to Florida -- and won -- did so at a cost of $2.7-million of his own money, according to new campaign finance records.

"That sounds about right," Dockery said in an interview Friday. "When we started this, I sat down with my wife and children and told them what I wanted to do and asked if it was okay with them, since what I was planning to do was spend a good chunk of their inheritance. We decided to do this as a family. I have to admit, the final total came out a bit higher than I planned."

And now that state voters have approved a constitutional amendment requiring that the rail line be built and that construction start by 2003, Dockery isn't content to wait for the Legislature to get the measure on track.

He and advisers are writing a bill that would create a statewide rail authority, which would fund the infrastructure of the system, the rail lines and stations, by selling bonds to be paid off by ticket sales.

"My self-imposed deadline to get the bill to the governor and the Legislature is the middle of the month," Dockery said. "I could miss it by a few days, but not much."

Such an authority would get the project around the objections of some public officials who feared that the state would have to cut back highway projects to fund the rail system.

"That won't happen," Dockery said. "It would be like a turnpike authority. Build the infrastructure. Contract out the operations."

The amendment that was passed calls for linking the state's five largest cities. An existing rail proposal to link from Pinellas County to Port Canaveral has been estimated to cost more than $5-billion, but Dockery says it is worth it.

"I've been working on this for 16 years," he said. "I think this is such a good thing for Florida. I have so much sympathy for people who are sick of waiting around airports or stuck in traffic, and for the 3-million people out there who don't have driver's licenses. This will be so good for them."

It also could boost the effort to bring the Olympics to central Florida in 2012 by providing a link between venues as far distant as St. Petersburg and Orlando. And it could encourage more high-tech industries to establish facilities along the Interstate 4 corridor, which the high-speed train would parallel.

The constitutional amendment requires that the train operate at a minimum of 120 miles per hour. Dockery said there are trains that can operate at nearly 200 mph, but they would be considerably more expensive.

And he said it didn't surprise him that his quest, which few gave much chance of succeeding, did so well with voters.

"We did focus groups and polling right on up to the election, and we were seeing that people were supporting us," Dockery said. "So I wasn't surprised at the outcome. But I was relieved, you can bet on that."

- Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.

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