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Cruise industry on board for extra high speed route in Florida

(The following story by Dan Tracy appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on June 6, 2010.)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Months before even an inch of track has been laid for a high-speed train linking Orlando with Tampa, cruise ships and port officials in Brevard County and South Florida are pushing for a second line that would serve them, too.

"I think it would be a competitive advantage we could sell," said Stan Payne, chief executive of Port Canaveral, a cruise-ship hub in Brevard.

Payne wants a train traveling 180 mph or more to run east from Orlando International Airport along the BeachLine Expressway to near Port Canaveral, then south along Interstate 95 to Miami.

In theory, it would be built after the OIA-Tampa route, which is set to start construction early next year and open in 2015.

Terry Dale, president of the Cruise Lines International Association in Fort Lauderdale, told a congressional hearing last month that such an integrated system would allow tourists to "easily be able to enjoy a vacation in a Central Florida theme park and an international cruise all on one trip to Florida."

He summed up his beliefs by saying his group "believes high-speed rail would promote economic development and sustain and grow tourism." He could not be reached for further comment.

A spokeswoman for Walt Disney World, which runs two cruise ships out of Port Canaveral, would say only that the mega-tourist attraction welcomes the "greater flexibility" the train could offer, particularly a route to Florida's east coast.

But there appears to be little doubt that the Port Canaveral train would offer a better deal to Disney than the first route, from OIA along the BeachLine to Interstate 4, then southwest to Tampa, with a stop near the park's Wide World of Sports complex.

Like the two other cruise lines that operate out of Port Canaveral, Disney ships essentially head out to open water on Sundays and midweek, leaving and returning at specific times. A fast train could easily accommodate such a schedule.

"The synergy is there," said Doc Dockery, who has been involved in Florida's high-speed-rail efforts for nearly three decades.

That vision, however, is far from a certainty.

Only half of the $2.6 billion needed for the Tampa-Orlando route has been set aside by the federal government. And no money has been allocated for a South Florida leg, except $2 million by the state to study the possibilities. The South Florida route could cost $10 billion.

Nazih Haddad, who is overseeing the state's high-speed ventures, said he understands the interest in adding a South Florida run to the train because it could become popular.

The number of potential riders — estimated in state studies at 6.7 million riders the first year — is "just tremendous. Very, very large," Haddad said.

Much larger, in fact, than the Tampa-Orlando route, which comes in at less than 2 million riders.

Tampa-Orlando got the nod because the state owned most of the land where the train would go, and it had completed most of the necessary federal and state studies and paperwork on the route.

That wasn't the case in the 1990s, when Miami-Orlando was Florida's top choice. But that changed during the early 2000s, when Tampa made an unsuccessful push for the 2012 Olympics, said Dockery, who served on the high-speed authority then. Olympic backers needed the train to help move athletes and fans between the east and west coasts and Orlando. Disney also promised to funnel riders to the system, Dockery said.

But the plan went dormant once the Olympic bid failed, and former Gov. Jeb Bush came out against the train. Disney then created an exclusive express-bus service to ferry guests and their luggage from OIA to the parks virtually around the clock. Disney officials have made it clear they will continue operating the buses and consider the train little more than an alternative.

President Barack Obama's administration revived the Tampa proposal as part of a nationwide push to create a high-speed-train network similar to the highway system started in the 1950s under President Dwight Eisenhower.

Obama came to Tampa in January to award the first $1.25 billion to the Florida Department of Transportation. Haddad and state and national transportation experts expect Obama to provide the remaining $1.4 billion to finish the Orlando-Tampa stretch in the years ahead.

They also are hoping Obama eventually will come up with the money for South Florida. But first, the state has to complete a number of studies, including an exhaustive environmental-impact statement.

An alignment has to be picked, too. So far, two routes are in play: the one favored by cruise lines, and one that would follow the BeachLine west, then veer south along Florida's Turnpike.

Making such decisions, Haddad said, could take 32 months.

That leaves plenty of time for South Florida and the cruise industry to lobby for their route.

"The symmetry of connecting Orlando with Tampa is great," Dockery said. "You can exchange your tourist bases."

Monday, June 7, 2010

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