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FDOT officials lay out plan for high-speed rail project

(The following story by Donna Kelly appeared on the News Chief website on February 11, 2010.)

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — Members of the Chamber of Commerce listened intently Wednesday afternoon as officials from the Florida Department of Transportation discussed the future of high-speed rail and its impact on Polk County.

"This is a huge economic impact for the State of Florida and Polk County," said Robert Dodd, chairman of the East Polk Committee of 100, as he opened the event. "The reality is we want what is best for Polk County and its long-range future."

Stan Cann, FDOT District 1 Secretary, said Polk County is poised to reap the benefits of high-speed rail.

"It's an exciting time for Polk County," Cann said. "We're going to have a stop here - no doubt about it."

High-speed rail isn't a new idea in Florida, said Nazih Haddad, chief operating officer of Florida Rail Enterprise.

"We've been working on high-speed rail since the 70s," Haddad said, adding that the measure never took off because federal funding was lacking.

That has changed in recent years with Congress approving allocations for high-speed rail in addition to funds available through the American Recovery Investment Act, which was passed last year.

Florida was chosen for funds, he said, for several reasons. These include the preservation of the Interstate 4 median, the submittal of an environmental impact statement, and high political and grassroot support.

"We expect to have it operating in five years - by 2015," Haddad said.

According to Cann and Haddad, the high-speed rail line will run from a multi-modal station in downtown Tampa, south of Interstate 75, to the Orlando Airport. Between those points will be one stop in Polk County, to be determined in the near future, and several in the Orlando area, including the Orange County Convention Center, Orlando International Airport and possibly Celebration, which has offered to donate the necessary right-of-way.

The state currently owns about 92 percent of the right-of-way needed to complete the project.

Eventually, the system also will provide service from Orlando to Miami.

When FDOT had an environmental study done in 2005, County Line Road near I-4 and the Kathleen area offered appropriate stops in Polk County.

"At that time, the development of the USF Polytechnic wasn't as developed as it is today," Haddad said.

Now, the area near the Polytechnic is a viable option and the state is preparing to do environmental studies, in addition to looking at land use and existing buildings. Projected ridership and potential revenue will also be considered in making the decision where to place the station in Polk County.

"The decision will be made in the very near future," Haddad said, although he didn't give an estimated time frame.

Cann and Haddad fielded a number of questions, ranging from the likelihood of the USF Polytechnic area being chosen as the Polk County stop to specifics of the trains themselves.

Winter Haven Realtor Todd Dantzler asked about the train's top speed and how quickly it is reached.

Haddad said the train will reach a top speed of about 168 miles per hour, which is reached in "a couple of minutes", between Tampa and Orlando. The top speed between Orlando and Miami will be about 185 mph.

According to Haddad, 98 rail systems in the world run at 190 mph. There's just one in the United States.

"It's time we are going into the 21st Century," he said.

Dave Dickey, Winter Haven's director of development, asked how soon the Polk County stop will be determined and if the type of rider will be weighed in the decision.

"Yes, the model does take into consideration the usage of the system," Haddad said.

Cann reiterated the importance of environmental studies, ridership and local support in choosing the stop.

With the Transportation Planning Organization meeting today, Cann is looking for an opinion on where locals believe a stop should be.

"We would like to get guidance in the form of a resolution," he said.

Marshall Goodman, CEO of USF Polytechnic, commented on the exclusion of Polk County when discussing Tampa-Orlando line.

"Tampa - Orlando. That makes me a dash. That leaves Polk out of the equation," Goodman said. "Can we make it Tampa, Polk, Orlando?"

Dodd described the County Line Road and Kathleen station options as "impractical."

"We need something more central, especially to the Polk Parkway. I use it all the time to access East Polk County," Dodd said. "To go all the way to (Kathleen) Lakeland to catch high speed rail is impractical on the east side of the county."

The suggested stop near USF Polytechnic is in the vicinity of the East Polk Parkway.

"We're excited to have our one stop in Polk County," said Jack Barnhart, director of the East Polk Committee of 100, who he supports the stop being located near the Polytechnic.

"We feel this is most central to serve the majority of Polk County," he said. "You're thinking vision - that is a great place for our stop."

While several people mentioned the site near USF Polytechnic as an "East Polk County site," Bob Gernert, executive director of the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, said this location has benefits for both sides of the county.

"USF Polytechnic is a central site - it will be just as convenient to Lakeland as it is to the east side of the county," Gernert said.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

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