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Florida counties plan for the changes, advantages rail could bring

(The following story by Michael W. Freeman appeared on the Lakeland Ledger website on July 5, 2010.)

HAINES CITY, Fla. — The Florida Department of Transportation is now in the planning stages for the high speed rail line that's expected to run alongside Interstate 4 from Orlando to Tampa, but the state agency isn't alone when it comes to mapping out a future with this new transportation option.

Economic development agencies in Polk and Osceola counties are also devoting considerable time to figuring out how to gain the maximum advantage from a train that offers residents, tourists and businesses alike an alternative to the congestion on state highways like I-4 and the Florida Turnpike.

That doesn't mean the train will have a stop in every local community. The high speed rail line is expected to have passenger stations at Walt Disney World and near Lakeland, while the SunRail train -- a commuter line that will run from Volusia County to downtown Orlando and then to Osceola County -- will have a stop at the Poinciana Industrial Park. The key now for local counties is finding ways to connect riders on both trains to bus or shuttle services that enable them to leave their cars behind.

In Haines City, the Economic Develpment Council is exploring ways to take advantage of not just the city's close proximity to the future train stations, but also the existing CSX commercial and passanger rail lines that now go through the city for freight shipping and Amtrak service.

Allison Beeman, deputy director of the Economic Development Council, said Haines City had been hoping initially that FDOT would consider a stop at the intersection of I-4 and U.S. 27, at the Posner Park shopping plaza. Polk County Commissioner Jean Reed had suggested that idea during a recent municipal summit held at ChampionsGate.

“At one time we were interested in discussions about having a stop at I-4 and (U.S.) 27, but they decided in Polk County we were going to have one stop,” Beeman said. That station is likely to be near the University of South Florida Polytechnic in Auburndale, which Beeman said will enable Haines City to market itself as being close enough for city commuters to use.

“We're definitely in partnership with the stop at USC Polytechnic,” she said.

Beeman also thinks that the SunRail stop in Poinciana can be a good option for residents of Northeast Polk County, particularly those who work in Orlando.

“There is a good bit of population in Northeast Polk County that would utilize it,” she said. “With SunRail, we'd like to have a discussion about moving the stop and putting one in Haines City at the Depot.” The historic train depot is in downtown Haines City, right next to Railroad Park.

The depot sits next to the CSX tracks that now run through the city. Amtrak already brings plenty of passengers through the area, Beeman noted.

“There's a good bit of passenger trains on those tracks,” she said.

The key to connecting cities to CSX, SunRail and the high speed train, she said, is creating an intermodal system of buses and shuttle services that help get passengers from one rail line to the next, regardless of what community they live in.

“With Polk County, since we're such a large county, we first have to think of the bus transit and how are we going to get people to the trains, especially if high speed is parallel to I-4,” Beeman said.

Osceola County Commissioner Michael Harford, whose district includes the Osceola County sections of Four Corners along U.S. 192, said the close proximity to Walt Disney World and the high speed rail stop there will be a huge boost to the businesses operating here and the residents living along this tourist corridor.

“To me, it's a natural fit for us, and we can get them right to the (Disney) station,” he said.

Harford agreed that before the rail lines get built, the county needs to plan for a local transportation network that gets people to the trains quickly and efficiently. To do that, commissioners are now considering a possible sales tax hike to fund this future network.

“We will be having a discussion on a one cent transportation sales tax, as a possible ballot question for county residents,” he said. “We hope to be able to dedicate that funding for transportation.”

That also enables county leaders to consider other transportation road improvements that could help put residents back to work and give local motorists better options for getting to their jobs, he said.

“We just have to be able to fund it,” he said. “We hope we can. We hope to be able to get it done in the next couple of years, as the economy improves. Then we'll be in very good shape.”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

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