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Disney gets on board with fast-train proposal

(The following story by Dan Tracy appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on October 2, 2009.)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida has received a last-minute boost from Walt Disney World in its bid for $2.5 billion of federal money to build a high-speed train linking Orlando and Tampa.

Disney says it will support a stop at the Orange County Convention Center, as well as provide up to 50acres of free land for a station. For years, Disney wanted any train that might be built to take a straight shot from Orlando International Airport to its parks, with no other stations.

"While many details are still yet to be worked out, we think this project makes sense for our community," Walt Disney World President Meg Crofton wrote in a letter to the state earlier this week.

Disney's backing is important because it could provide millions of riders to the system, helping to underwrite operation costs for the entire 90-mile route.

There will be intense and widespread competition for the $8 billion set aside by the Obama administration and Congress for creating mass-transit systems featuring trains capable of going at least 110 mph. Today, Florida is electronically transmitting its final application to Washington. Nearly 280 pre-applications, from Los Angeles to Boston and many places in between, were submitted earlier this summer, for a total of $102billion in proposals.

No timetable has been set for announcing the winners, but it's clear that most of the requests will not be filled.

'Very good' odds
Florida proponents, however, are upbeat about the state's chances.

Ed Turanchik, a developer and former Hillsborough County commissioner, called Florida's odds "very good." He runs ConnectUs, a nonprofit formed three months ago with $50,000 donated by a variety of businesses and individuals to promote Florida's high-speed-rail bid.

He maintains the state's decades-long pursuit of a fast train should place Florida at or near the top of the list for those making the decisions at the federal Department of Transportation.

Thanks largely to the work of a defunct high-speed-rail authority, the state has chosen an alignment and completed an environmental-impact study that recently was updated. Florida could start construction within 14 months, with operations beginning late in 2014. Few, if any, of Florida's rivals can make that claim.

"I really think we have the best project in the country. We have all the ingredients," said Nazih Haddad, who oversees the state's proposal for the Florida Department of Transportation.

C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the retired Lakeland insurance magnate who has long worked to bring a fast train to Florida, said Disney's decision to get on board is "big. It really is."

Disney's marketing abilities, he said, "will showcase the first high-speed rail in the U.S. in a way it could never be anywhere else.... What a marvelous opportunity for the Obama administration."

Disney spokeswoman Zoraya Suarez said Disney backs the current plan because it could complement the planned SunRail commuter train that would run from DeLand to Poinciana.

"Our primary concern," Suarez said in an e mail to the Orlando Sentinel, "has always been ensuring that high-speed rail does not prevent our community from building an effective commuter rail system in the future. The proposed route for SunRail would not be impacted by the high-speed rail route that has been selected."

Suarez said Disney would continue offering its Magical Express bus service that takes visitors directly from the airport to hotels on its property. The train, she said, would provide another option.

Crofton's letter did not specify where the station would be located, only that it would be "at or near" the resort. Crofton valued the land at $25 million.

Haddad said the state already owns more than 90 percent of the land needed for the tracks. The property — a 44-foot-wide swath largely down the middle of Interstate 4 — is worth $1 billion, he said.

The terrain, Haddad points out, is flat, which lends itself to speed. And I-4 hosts hundreds of thousands of motorists who daily traipse among Orlando, Lakeland and Tampa — and many of those travelers could be potential passengers.

Stops are planned for Orlando International Airport, the Orange County Convention Center, Walt Disney World near Celebration, Lakeland and the old Morgan Street Jail in downtown Tampa.

Hour's ride each way
One-way fares could be $20, according to ConnectUs. Travel time, including stops, would be about an hour.

Ten corridors were approved in 1991 by the government as eligible for high-speed funding, though there was no money at the time. The Orlando-Tampa route is among that group. Other areas seeking money include Los Angeles to San Francisco, a Midwest hub with Chicago at the center and Washington to New York City.

U.S. DOT spokesman Rob Kulat said agency officials realize there is not enough money to go around, nor enough to fully fund any single venture. This is the beginning, he said, of what could be a 30-year undertaking to enhance rail transit throughout the country.

Florida also is awaiting word on applications it made in August for $270 million to buy the tracks for the planned SunRail commuter train and $30 million to study a high-speed route between Orlando and Miami.

"We're at the point," Kulat said, "of having to sort carefully and going through it."

Friday, October 2, 2009

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