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Orlando airport plans ‘Grand Central’ terminal for Florida’s high-speed rail

(The following story by Scott Powers appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on March 17, 2010.)

ORLANDO, Fla. — When high-speed rail finally arrives in Central Florida, Orlando International Airport wants to be ready — with a "Grand Central Station" of terminals that could include multiple rail lines, food and retail concessions, a hotel and rental-car counters, officials said Wednesday.

There is no estimate yet on how much the terminal would cost or who would pay for it, though airport leaders said they think state and federal officials should provide most of the money.

The $1.25 billion federal-stimulus grant that Florida won in January gives the state its best prospect yet to develop a long-discussed $2.6 billion high-speed rail system, starting with a route from downtown Tampa to OIA.

Meanwhile, state and area planners are preparing to build a $1.2 billion SunRail commuter train line through Central Florida. Both could be operating by 2015.

So the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, long ready to expand into the rail business, has spruced up its old plans to propose a station that could link those lines and even eventually be a hub for the entire state.

The terminal would be about a half-mile south of the airport's main terminal, connected to that building by an elevated tram like those that now connect the main terminal to the airport's remote air terminals.

The proposed station could handle not just high-speed and SunRail trains, but also a possible light-rail line connecting with the Orange County Convention Center on International Drive.

Passengers would find a train terminal lobby with soaring ceilings and the ambience of OIA's main terminal. The station could have its own parking, rental-car, taxi and Lynx bus areas, ticketing counters, baggage-sorting systems, baggage-claim carousels, concessions and eventually a hotel.

"It has to fit in with the ‘Orlando experience' that has become the standard for the Orlando International Airport," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who is a member of the aviation-authority board, which adopted the plan Wednesday. "This will be a station a lot of people will come to and visit. It needs to be iconic."

Consequently, both Dyer and Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty — another member of the board — said state and federal rail authorities must be persuaded to pay for something more grand than a basic rail platform. Crotty and Dyer would not specifically discuss putting up any county, city or aviation-authority money.

"If you're talking about political will, I think we need to push hard because look what can happen based on the success of the vision for this airport, the vision for a high-speed-rail system, the vision of a commuter-rail system," Crotty said. "The reality is, in tough economic times, the necessity for an appropriate funding package is a little vague at this point, and what that partnership would look like is a little unclear at this point."

The authority has planned since the 1980s to get into the train business whenever it might be coming. All the current buildings, roads, bridges and airplane taxiways leave room for future rail lines. The authority's previous rail plan, from 2005, estimated that running tracks up the north-south spine of the airport would cost $105 million, likely to be covered by state and federal grants. A basic train station in 2005 was estimated at $68 million.

In past plans, the authority actually envisioned two train stations, one next to the current, main terminal, and one next to a planned but indefinitely delayed "south" terminal. The authority's general-planning consultant, Tom Chandler, president of Shenkel Schulz Architecture, said the position next to the current terminal does not provide enough room to build anything but a fairly basic train station, so plans were revised for one station, in the middle of where the south terminal was planned.

When the aviation authority builds the south terminal, it would envelop the train station. Meanwhile, the train station could stand alone.

Chandler and a team of airport officials have been revising the authority's rail plans for months. He said they envisioned one that also could also receive high-speed lines in the state's long-term plans, from Miami, Port Canaveral, Jacksonville and Tallahassee.

To that end, they also set aside land for a high-speed-rail maintenance yard at the airport.

"This is the Grand Central Station. This is Union Station," Chandler said.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

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