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Orlando theme parks' squabbling could kill state's bullet train project

(The following article by Mike Branom was distributed by the Associated Press on July 18.)

ORLANDO -- There always has been fighting between Mickey Mouse, Shamu the killer whale and Universal's superheroes over tourists' dollars. But that cutthroat capitalism now threatens a potential solution to booming Florida's traffic problems.

The SeaWorld Orlando and Universal Orlando theme parks believe it's best for Florida if a bullet train network was derailed before it ever leaves the station. High-speed rail is too expensive and more roads would better solve the state's smothering gridlock, they say.

However, many question whether the parks' big-dollar contributions to an anti-train petition drive reflects anger the line bypasses their properties and delivers visitors seven miles away directly to rival Walt Disney World.

One civic leader believes a shortsighted war could have long-term consequences.

``The tourist corridor is our bread and butter for not only the region, but the state,'' said Rep. John Mica, R-Altamonte Springs, the senior Floridian on the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. ``At some point, they're going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs for the economy.''

This fight became an inevitability four years ago, when the state's voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring the construction of a high-speed rail network. The first leg would run from Orlando International Airport to Tampa, with a cost currently estimated at $2.3 billion.

Ten miles west of the airport via the Bee Line Expressway is the International Drive tourist district, home to SeaWorld, Universal and the Orange County Convention Center; seven miles beyond, near the Central Florida GreeneWay toll road's end, is Disney.

Both areas can lay claim to massive traffic, so making arguments that a nearby stop would get people out of their cars and off the roads. Between the two tourist draws, Interstate 4 sees a daily average of more than 150,000 vehicles, according to 2003 figures provided by the Florida Department of Transportation.

The Florida High Speed Rail Authority decided on a route in October by looking to who could deliver the most passengers. It wasn't close, according to ridership studies: Disney offers 2.2 million riders annually, more than four times what I-Drive can deliver.

The station, if constructed, be located on 50 acres of Disney land at the confluence of three major traffic arteries: I-4, U.S. Highway 192 and the Osceola Parkway.

``The GreeneWay is the best route for high-speed service, considering the interests of the state, the region and the success of that service in Florida,'' Disney spokesman Bill Warren said.

Even a longtime Disney critic admitted it would make more sense to put the station at Disney.

``When you try to make mass transit work, you have to make the trains go to where the people want to go,'' said Rollins College political science professor Rick Fogelsong.

Stung by Disney's victory, SeaWorld and Universal have turned their lobbying efforts toward killing the train. The parks have combined to contribute $470,000 to DErail the Bullet Train (DEBT), which wants to put an amendment repeal before the voters in November. That's nearly one-third of the $1.48 million DEBT has collected.

SeaWorld's parent company wrapped its money in the rhetoric of a good corporate citizen.

``Because of the negative economic impact on the state of Florida, the taxpayers and businesses in the state, Anheuser-Busch does not support the high-speed rail project,'' the brewery said in a statement. ``The taxpayers of the state will be required to subsidize a losing proposition when better, more economically sound alternatives exist.''

That position is closely aligned with that of Gov. Jeb Bush, who has opposed high speed rail for years. One of his first acts when taking office in 1999 was to kill the proposed Florida Overland Express.

The man who has made bullet trains his crusade questions SeaWorld's motives.

``SeaWorld was lobbying for a stop at I-Drive,'' said C.C. ``Doc'' Dockery, who spent $3 million to get high speed rail on the 2000 ballot. ``Their opposition surfaced only after the authority voted for the GreeneWay location. There's nothing principled about that.''

Universal, unlike their I-Drive counterpart, acknowledged its actions were partially motivated by self-interest. ``We believe the Florida High Speed Rail Act is not good for Florida, its taxpayers, the entire International Drive tourism community, Orange County -- and Universal Orlando,'' spokesman Tom Schroder said.

Neither theme park would comment on their position had the FHSRA voted to run the train down the Bee Line.

``It's the hyenas here, not the lion, who are exposed as engaging in blatant political maneuvering to serve their interests,'' said Fogelsong, the author of ``Married to the Mouse,'' an expose of Disney's growth into a regional power broker. ``I'm sure Disney likes that to take the attention off them and make them look like the good guys.''

Monday, July 19, 2004

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