Jeb Bush's war against Florida high-speed rail shows his governing style

High-speed rail fight shows Jeb Bush's willingness to go against desires of voters and a political ally

When Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, he said his constituents didn't fully understand what they were doing when they amended their constitution in 2000 to build a high-speed rail line connecting the state's five largest cities.

"People thought it was 'cool' to have a really fast train running from Miami to Tampa," Bush wrote to a constituent at the time. "No costs were discussed. The higher taxes that are necessary will dramatically change the dynamic."

After slashing funding for the project, Bush campaigned in favor of a second voter referendum, to kill the project. It took him four years, but he won.

Bush's war against high-speed rail offers one of the clearest examples of his governing philosophy and style. It mixes a willingness to go against both the desires of voters and an influential political ally — and an unromantic fiscal conservatism that has endeared him to some Republicans.

Long before his conservatism was questioned by a Republican Party that has shifted to the right, Bush used such fights to build a reputation as a bulwark against large-scale infrastructure projects favored by Democrats.

In the eight years since Bush left office, high-speed rail has become a signature goal for both the Obama administration and for Gov. Jerry Brown. California's $68-billion bullet train — which would link San Francisco, the Central Valley and Los Angeles — is the nation's largest public works project.

A Bush presidency would almost surely cast a more skeptical eye toward costly transportation projects, both in terms of financial and regulatory assistance.

"Gov. Bush opposes President Obama's high-speed rail agenda," Bush spokesman Tim Miller said in an email. "He would not support additional federal funding for the California rail project, a boondoggle, the cost estimates for which have doubled since it was initially proposed."

Bush's detractors said his handling of the issue in Florida is emblematic of his willingness to protect moneyed interests — including developers, energy producers and highway builders — who opposed a shift toward mass transit and in some cases helped fund the repeal effort.

"It's that arrogance of kind of the 1%," said Ian Lockwood, who wrote a paper favoring the project in 2000 for one of the cities on the proposed route, West Palm Beach, and now works as a transportation engineer in Orlando.

The notion of a bullet train connecting Florida's growing and sprawling cities to alleviate local traffic, save energy and transport tourists has captivated planners since at least the 1970s, making it a precursor of California's effort. A 1982 trip by then-Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat, to Japan, which is dependent on high-speed trains, added political momentum, though interest continued to ebb and flow because of costs that were certain to grow into the billions.

By the time Bush took office in 1999, the state had begun sending more than $70 million a year to a consortium of rail companies known as Florida Overland Express that had begun work on a plan to link Miami, in the state's southeast, with the two population centers in central Florida, Orlando and Tampa. The rest of the cost, then pegged at $6.3 billion but later much more, would be met with private dollars and a federal loan.

But critics, including Bush, questioned whether passenger projections were being kept artificially high and cost projections artificially low. Less than two weeks into his governorship, Bush cut off funding for the train, essentially voiding the contract.

"He killed the project. I can't speculate on why he did it," the train's leading proponent, C.C. "Doc" Dockery, said in an interview.

Dockery, a Bush donor who described the two as "very good friends," committed $3 million toward putting the project on the 2000 ballot as an amendment to the state constitution. The election received scant attention amid a presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore that would ultimately send Florida's results to the U.S. Supreme Court. But 53% of the electorate voted "yes," giving the rail project a public mandate.

Bush was not dissuaded, at one point vetoing $7 million in planning and construction money approved by the Republican Legislature.

"This little choo-choo could cost a lot of money," Bush protested in 2003.

He said he was not against the train in principle, but would only support it if it could be built and operated with private funding, a feat that has proved impossible in almost every other nation that has attempted it. California's project is only partially funded, with a combination that includes $9 billion from a bond measure approved by voters in 2008 and a $3.2-billion grant from the Obama administration.

"I think he looked at it as a conservative fiscal thing," said Tom Gallagher, who was Florida's chief financial officer from 2003 to 2007 and led the political committee that spearheaded the repeal effort. "You shouldn't have something that cost billions of dollars be mandated in the constitution ahead of other things."

Emails to and from Bush's office, made public through Florida's expansive open records law, show his deep interest in details.

He kept close tabs on the state's high-speed rail committee, often communicating with members directly after receiving reports from their meetings; he read newspaper coverage of the project, at times suggesting to his staff strategic responses to lines in news stories and editorials; and he wrote personally to reporters and constituents who questioned his strategy, even arguing with one about traffic in central Florida.

Bush tried to persuade the Florida Legislature to place the repeal effort on the ballot in 2003 and again in 2004, bypassing the costly signature gathering process. Although Bush exerted tight control on the Republican majorities that controlled the House and Senate, many lawmakers were nervous about appearing to thwart public will.

Marco Rubio, then majority leader of the Florida House, was among them. He voted against the repeal effort in April 2003, then reversed himself a day later after pressure from Bush. Rubio, now a U.S. senator, is a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, as Bush is expected to be.

The governor could not persuade the state Senate to go along, however, suffering a rare defeat.

As a result, one of Bush's allies, Gallagher, led the effort to gather voter signatures. Bush, though not officially in charge, helped raise money and influenced public opinion.

Internal emails showed his administration was concerned with complaints that they were thwarting the will of voters. (One angry email to Bush was titled, "This is not a dictatorship.") In response, Bush's staff said it was important to "explain the idea of a new referendum not as a 're-vote' but as a new vote which would allow voters to make a new decision based on more recent information."

But by the time voters reached the ballot box, Bush prevailed, with 64% in favor of repealing the train project.

"Give Jeb this much," said Democrat Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner from Tampa who has been involved in high-speed rail projects since the early 1990s. "He is a natural born leader, and he has the courage of his convictions. And he won't stand down. And I was really disappointed that he did it."

Twitter: @noahbierman

Times staff writer Paige St. John in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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