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I love my bullet train!



The 10-year-old in me is about to pee himself. I'm standing under I-4 at Robinson Street, beholding what's being marketed as the future of Florida transportation. From the outside, it doesn't look that much different from any other passenger train; maybe a bit sleeker. It's the inside that makes me giddy.

I mean, how often do you see a train powered by a jet engine? A train that can hit 100 mph in two minutes, 30 seconds, and can max out at 150 mph? A train that can go from Orlando to Tampa in one hour, and Orlando to Miami in less than two hours? This, dear readers, is the 21st century at its most exciting.

Of course, this media confab -- which started at the downtown Marriott Saturday morning before migrating to the tracks on Robinson -- is about more than neat gadgetry. It's a sales pitch, courtesy of Fluor-Bombardier, the international conglomerate angling to win a multibillion-dollar state contract to bring high-speed rail to Florida.

Here's the back story: Days after taking office in 1998, Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a proposed $6 billion high-speed rail connecting Orlando, Tampa and Miami, saying it was too expensive. That didn't stop C.C. Dockery, a millionaire Republican from Lakeland, from funding a campaign to make high-speed rail a constitutional amendment.

To nearly everyone's surprise, the state Supreme Court overlooked the amendment's vagaries and allowed it on the 2000 ballot, where it passed, 53 percent to 47 percent. Bush, who had campaigned against, spent the next three years in a foot-dragging campaign, doing a whole lot of nothing to get the rail up and running. Ever the sore loser, this year Bush even vetoed $7 million in planning money earmarked for the rail authority.

Sure, the amendment dictated that the project "break ground" by November 2003, but don't hold your breath. The state now considers selecting a company to build the rail to be sufficient groundbreaking.

Earlier this year, Bush even tossed around the idea of asking voters to revote on the constitutional amendment, but so far the state hasn't taken any formal steps in that direction. Per the amendment, and despite Bush's over-my-dead-body attitude, the state established the Florida High Speed Rail Authority to evaluate bids to build and operate the high-speed rail line, the first of which is planned for the stretch between Orlando and Tampa. On Oct. 27 -- just days before the November deadline -- the commission will decide between Fluor-Bombardier and the Global Rail Consortium, a group of 29 Korean, European and American businesses that is offering a faster, slightly more expensive rail line but is seen as the underdog. The Legislature gets the final say.

In hopes of scoring some media points ahead of the decision, Fluor-Bombardier has taken to the road. Orlando is stop No. 2, right after Miami. So here I am, ready for the press briefing, in a group with eight media colleagues -- four cameramen, a reporter each from WESH, Local 6 and WFTV, and an Associated Press reporter. We get the lowdown on why the so-called JetTrain -- as the name suggests, a locomotive powered by a jet-plane engine -- will save money, create jobs, save lives, blah blah blah. We're given a high-tech presentation on the train's cost, speed and technical specifications -- which I glossed over -- then we get to ask a few questions. Finally, we're off to see (and videotape) the train, which is really why we're here.

Fluor-Bombardier's bid calls for a high-speed rail line that starts at the Orlando International Airport, spins off near the attractions -- either running alongside the Beeline Expressway or the GreeneWay -- and sprints down to Tampa. That particular rail line -- the first of five mandated by the constitution -- will be completed by 2009. The second link, from Orlando to Miami, will come in 2012. When all three connections are done, Fluor-Bombardier anticipates 10 million annual riders. The Tampa-Orlando leg will cost an estimated $2 billion.

The cost to the user? Forty dollars per person per trip to Tampa. For that link, Fluor-Bombardier will provide six trains, each of which carries 288 passengers. For the Canadian-based company's sake, hope those trains are full: As part of the bid, Fluor-Bombardier has assumed operational responsibility for the next 30 years, so if there's not enough ridership to meet costs, Fluor-Bombardier, not Florida taxpayers, eats the loss.

Bombardier Transportation vice president Lecia Stewart is banking on the high-speed rail becoming "part of the whole tourist package," she says. "In Europe, 80 percent of trips three hours or less are now served by high-speed rail."

But this is Florida, a state in which voters pass constitutional amendments to build high-speed rail and to reduce class sizes, and they also elect tax-cutting right-wing Republicans diametrically opposed to these very same amendments. More specifically, this is a region that just last week rejected a plan -- albeit a flawed one -- to improve gridlock because they simply didn't want to pay an extra half-cent sales tax.

As I spoke with various members of the Fluor-Bombardier team -- they have built rail lines across Europe and around Washington, D.C. -- I got the distinct impression that they are overestimating Floridians' desire to hop a train. People voted for high-speed rail not because they wanted to use it; they want other people to use it and clear some space on their freeway.

To put it simply, most people are just not that enthralled with mass transit. Indeed, that will prove to be the bullet train's greatest foe.

The theory behind high-speed rail is that it will get people out of their cars. But, as Stewart admits, people only get off the highways if mass transportation is "seamless," meaning they can take the bullet train to Tampa, then hop on a reliable light rail or bus to get where they want to go in the area. Without that, you're asking people to spend $40 per person for the train trip, then wait for a bus or a cab or, worse, have to rent a car after that. Meanwhile, gas for the two-hour car trip runs about $10.

"If you had light rail," she says, "we'd hook it up."

Stewart has a point -- Fluor-Bombardier is bidding on a state contract, not making policy. It's not their fault we're unreceptive to transportation progress. They're doing what the state has asked, providing an amazing machine at a price that -- assuming Fluor-Bombardier's numbers are right -- comes in well below early bullet-train estimates.

The way I see it, the bullet train's arrival will bring with it two possible eventualities. The first, a worst-case scenario, is that it will fail, and Fluor-Bombardier or Global Rail won't generate enough ridership to keep the bullet train in the black. Then, the same anti-tax blowhards who convinced Central Floridians that Mobility 20/20 would turn I-4 into a toll road would have ammunition anytime any rail proposal came up for discussion. Ultimately, whatever momentum Florida built toward light rail or any other form of effective mass transportation would die.

The other, more hopeful possibility is that this bullet train, with its off-the-charts cool factor, will become its own attraction, and that tourists and businessmen alike will get on board, practical or not. Its success would almost certainly prompt local leaders across the state to move into the future and vigorously pursue rail networks of their own. Slowly, perhaps this train might lead the state away from its dependence on the automobile.

At least, the little boy inside me hopes so.


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