Florida puts rail on the fast track

Ignoring official disinterest, residents will vote on whether to build high- speed rail.

The proposal sounds like something out of Tomorrowland at Disney World - a city-to-city network of high-speed trains capable of whizzing passengers across Florida at 120 miles per hour.

But the high-speed rail system has nothing to do with Orlando's Magic Kingdom. It is the subject of a ballot initiative promoted by a retired businessman who believes Florida should play a pioneering role in the development of high-speed mass transit in the United States.

The businessman, C.C. "Doc" Dockery, has spent $1.5 million of his own money to collect 600,000 signatures - more than enough to secure a spot on the November ballot.

It calls for a high-speed rail network linking Florida's five largest cities. Construction is to begin by November 2003.

What makes the ballot initiative interesting is that there appears to be little support for the multibillion-dollar project among state lawmakers and Gov. Jeb Bush. As one of his first acts in office, Governor. Bush scuttled a proposal to build a high-speed bullet train to run between Miami and Orlando.

The governor said the project was too much of a potential financial liability for the state should the train fail to attract enough riders.

The proposal comes at a time when gasoline prices are relatively high, some highways seem little more than bumper-to-bumper parking lots, and airports nationwide are overpopulated with frustrated, stranded passengers.

High-speed rail is an option that has long existed in Europe and Japan. But experts say it has faltered in the US. The Florida project could change that.

"We are at a point of stagnation when it comes to high-speed rail," says Joseph Vranich, a leading proponent of high speed rail development and author of two books on the subject. He says the most high-profile fast train project - on the New York to Boston run - has been a fiasco. The Amtrak-run project is beset by chronic delays and cost overruns.

"Once the ACELA is running, at its best performance, it will be only 50 minutes faster than trains running on the same line in 1956," he says.

Discussions are under way for high speed rail projects between Chicago and Detroit, Los Angeles and San Diego, Seattle and Portland, New York and Buffalo, and Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The Las Vegas line had been slated to start service next month, but Amtrak announced recently that it would be pushed back at least a year. A proposal by an independent investor to build a monorail linking Florida's east coast with Orlando airport fell apart recently.

But Mr. Dockery, who chaired a commission nearly a decade ago to study high-speed rail options in Florida, wasn't about to give up. Instead of redoubling efforts to lobby officials in Tallahassee, he took his idea directly to voters. Dockery says the initiative is aimed at creating a fast, reliable means of traveling from city to city "for those of us who are tired of road rage and air rage."

Under Florida law, citizens are permitted to propose amendments to the Florida Constitution - and if a majority of voters agree, the measure becomes law.

To qualify, Dockery's plan needed to be endorsed by 435,000 registered Florida voters, a milestone he reached this summer.

But the rail plan faces at least one more hurdle: The state Supreme Court is currently examining the wording to ensure the ballot question is clear and understandable, and that it deals with only one subject.

Mr. Vranich says the Florida proposal could "revitalize" the US rail industry if it creates an opportunity for companies other than Amtrak to become involved in building and running high-speed-rail projects.

"Amtrak has been the death knell for visionary high-speed rail projects in this country," he says. There are several other companies with the ability and resources to make Dockery's vision a reality in Florida, Vranich says.

"A big project like this, I think you would see some extremely healthy competition."

Not everyone agrees. Ken Morefield, assistant secretary for transportation policy at the Florida Department of Transportation, questions Dockery's tactics. "We don't believe the Constitution is the right place to be making transportation policy, but if the proposal goes on the ballot and passes then the state has to comply," he says.

Mr. Morefield says the constitutional process may leave the state at a competitive disadvantage in attempting to organize a public-private partnership to build the multibillion-dollar project. He says if private companies know that officials are required to build such a system regardless of whether private capital is used, they may refuse to invest their own money in the project.

Vranich says although he supports the fast-train project, he worries that relying on a constitutional amendment may backfire. "In the world of high-speed rail this is a huge PR blunder, because you are forcing people to do something rather than building consensus," he says.

Dockery disagrees. In the absence of political continuity in Florida, it is necessary to take the issue directly to the people. "We the people of Florida created our Constitution and we created a method to amend the Constitution for any purpose," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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