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High-speed rail system for Florida gets boost from lawmakers

The Florida Legislature opened the door for construction of a high-speed rail system in the state by passing a comprehensive bill that outlined how the state would assist private companies in building one.

The bill set up a Florida High-Speed Rail Commission with the power to award a franchise to a company willing to use private money to build a system that would connect Tampa, Orlando, and Miami with a train that would run in excess of 120 miles per hour. The bill, passed last Wednesday, allows the state to sell tax-free bonds to finance the construction, but it requires that those bonds must be paid back by the company that builds the system.

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While no state money can be used for construction or operation of the train, the bill does give the state power to donate highway right-of-way on which the system would be built.

Under the setup, the franchise company would get development rights around proposed stations, which it can use to help make the train pay for itself.

The vote came two years after Gov. Robert Graham (D) created a high-speed rail committee, which determined that a new passenger-train system would benefit Florida and could be built privately with state concessions.

The bill puts Florida in the forefront among the states considering high-speed rail systems. California had taken an early lead by passing a bill that allowed for the sale of tax-free bonds to build a Japanese-style ''bullet train'' between Los Angeles and San Diego.

But California's Legislature moved so fast it left many environmentalists and local government officials behind, and now the proposal is mired in lawsuits.

Florida's rail proponents circumvented California's problems by including local governments and environmentalists in the creation of the legislation. Now these groups are ardent supporters.

''Our principal concern is that the high-speed rail system should come into existence,'' says Peter Mott, president of the Florida Audubon Society, an environmental organization. ''The impact is so substantial and potentially so positive that we should be moving it forward as quickly as possible.''

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Eight companies from five countries have submitted proposals to build trains in Florida. The proposals range from a diesel-powered train that could travel at 120 m.p.h. to an experimental system that would run on magnetic levitation at speeds faster than 250 m.p.h.

''We would like to see the commission constituted as quickly as possible,'' says Robert Blanchette, president of the French-backed TGV company, ''so we can meet with them and talk about timetables and the process for awarding a franchise.''

High-speed rail proponents say a system will provide fast-growing Florida with another means of transportation that could eliminate the need for more building airports and more lanes of highways. It could also help shape the state's growth by directing where new development will be centered.

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