Floridians Put Brakes on Bullet Train ’Boondoggle’

Wed November 24, 2004 - Southeast Edition
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ORLANDO, FL (AP) A bullet train network approved by voters in 2000 was knocked off the tracks Nov. 2 with opponents convincing voters this time around that the project was an expensive boondoggle.

The constitutional amendment to repeal the train passed with 4.2 million votes, or 64 percent, while there were 2.4 million votes, or 36 percent, to save it. That was with 7,014, or 97 percent, of Florida’s 7,241 precincts reporting.

Although no construction had started, the first leg connecting Orlando and Tampa had been laid out and a contractor was selected. The cost of that first leg was estimated at more than $2.3 billion.

The train was to eventually connect the two areas with Miami.

“It shows that Florida citizens know fiscal responsibility is very important,” said state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who shepherded Amendment 6 through the petition process and to the ballot.

Backers of the repeal collected $3.3 million, a sum that bullet train supporters couldn’t counter.

Hundreds of citizens donated to the anti-train drive, prompting Gallagher to praise it as a “grassroots effort.” But the vast majority of the money came from a road builders’ political action committee, two theme parks upset that the line would stop on Disney property and not theirs, and a deep-pocketed booster of Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP.

“I think Big Money, asphalt and concrete prevailed,” said Ken Walton, executive director of the pro-train The Rail Truth. “We were outspent dramatically: four or five-to-one. We didn’t have a single television ad, and they had a significant amount.”

But Gallagher countered that when the train was voted into the constitution four years ago, a handful of citizens put forth much of the funding.

Gallagher and Gov. Jeb Bush decried the rail’s price tag of $25 billion over 30 years, as estimated by a state panel for a network connecting southeastern Florida with Orlando and the Tampa Bay area.

“This campaign is about responsible spending and affording Floridians the opportunity to take a second look,” Gallagher said.

Bush and Gallagher said if voters were serious about ending gridlock, killing the train would free money better spent on regional transportation.

“We have a very good plan –– 5-year, 10-year and further out –– for roads in this state,” Gallagher said.

Train supporters said they wouldn’t give up, although Walton believed it might be necessary to wait until Bush finishes his second term.

“Maybe in two years we’ll have a more visionary governor who can look toward a 21st-century transportation system, and possibly include high speed rail as a viable alternative,” Walton said.

Bullet trains are being studied in many other regions, such as California and the Midwest, but Florida’s project was the furthest along. With Floridians killing the project, it could free federal money for the other regions.

In Canada, jobs depended on the vote. A consortium led by Montreal-based Bombardier was selected in November to run the project, and the company stood to gain $500 million if the train got rolling.