Orlando conference identifies high-speed rail's success factors
(The following story by Tom Palmer appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on March 4, 2010.)
ORLANDO ó High-speed rail's success in Florida and the rest of the United States lies in effectively promoting and selling it as a safe, convenient, environmentally friendly mode of transportation.
That was the message about 250 consultants and vendors attending the High Speed Rail 2010 conference in Orlando were told Thursday.
But to do that, leaders have to communicate openly with the public and plan routes and station locations that will create jobs, revitalize communities and get people where they want to go efficiently.
The two-day conference at the Hilton on International Drive was organized by US High Speed Rail Association of Washington, D.C., to promote high-speed rail projects across the United States.
Thursday's conference featured presentations by Florida public officials, high-speed rail company representatives and legal, financial, development, engineering and media experts. They discussed how Florida's project - and any other high-speed rail project - should be planned, promoted, built and used for economic development.
Ed Turanchik, a longtime Tampa leader for improved transit, said the way Florida handles the project is crucial.
"Florida high-speed rail will determine the success of high-speed rail in the United States," he said.
Phase One of the high-speed rail, which just received transportation stimulus money, will run between Orlando International Airport and downtown Tampa. In between will be only three stops: the Orange County Civic Center, Celebration and a stop in Polk County.
"We are the state that can build it faster than anyone else in the country," said Nazih Haddad, chief operating officer for the Florida Department of Transportation's Florida Rail Enterprise.
Haddad said state officials are still consulting with the Federal Railroad Administration on technical details, but said he hoped to "have something on the street in six months."
The Polk Transportation Planning Organization board recently recommended the USF Polytechnic location as Polk County's high-speed rail station site, with the Kathleen Road area as its second choice.
Outside the meeting room, companies that operate high- speed rail systems in Korea, Spain and elsewhere had set up tables with models of their trains.
Speaker after speaker touted the benefits of high-speed rail as everything from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to reviving Florida's economy.
The location for the conference appeared to be a nod to Florida's seeming head start in developing the first high-speed rail route in the United States.
But it takes more than good intentions to make the system work, said Ceceila Ribalaygua, a Spanish academic whose research has focused on high-speed rail in Europe.
Ribalaygua, who is associated with the Universidad de Cantabria, said it's important to put stations in the right locations, where there's room for economic development and where the transit infrastructure is in place.
In addition, communities need to make stations architecturally inviting and to come up with ways to package high-speed rail with tourism and business travel, a concept she called "gray matter travel, not goods."
"The train won't help by itself; you need strategies to take advantage of it," she said.
One key strategy ahead of the project is to make sure it doesn't lose public support, said Michael Kehs of Hill & Knowlton, a public relations company that has been hired by the US High Speed Rail Association.
Although the project has a lot of things going for it, Kehs said, very little is really known about the public's support.
Superficially there appears to be support, but one of the challenges is to make sure people understand that high-speed rail is different from commuter rail, light rail and freight rail, he said.
Kehs said an aggressive public information campaign is necessary to define the project in the public's mind and to deal quickly with misinformation.
He said there are other potential obstacles that include fiscal conservatives who object to the spending, people who are uncomfortable with the foreign involvement in the project and disputes over land-use and environmental issues.
Mary Hamill of Global 5 Communications, a firm specializing in transportation issues, said it will be important for Florida to be transparent about public funding and jobs.
In addition, it will be important to use Web sites to direct passengers to other transit connections and to form partnerships to promote tourism and business travel and to provide customer service.
Today's agenda includes a seminar on real estate development around rail stations. The luncheon speaker is U.S. Congressman John Mica, R-Winter Park.
Friday, March 5, 2010
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