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Commuter rail could be I-4 alternative, panel says

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When state road crews begin what could be five years of heavy construction on Interstate 4, the only alternative for getting to work on time may be a commuter rail line running along existing freight tracks, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

The system could provide an option to I-4, members of a county transportation panel were told Wednesday, and could be ready in far less time than a light-rail system.

Keeping commuters moving is one of the issues Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty wants his blue-ribbon panel to address whenit unveilsits recommendations for fixing gridlock in January.

The panel has focused on expanding I-4 to 12 lanes in some places and redesigning major interchanges.

Light rail, if approved, wouldn't be ready until 2011, according to consultants working for Lynx, the region's transit authority.

Commuter rail, however, could be ready even before major work begins on I-4, according to consultants, which may not be before 2006.

"Commuter rail may be an excellent short-term demonstration project," said Bill Frederick, the head of the Crotty Transportation Commission. "I think we ought to give it a chance, to make a run at it."

Mike Snyder, the state's top-ranking transportation official in Central Florida, has said interstate construction "will be hell," bad enough, he predicted, to prompt drivers to try rail.

"I've got to have something other than I-4," he said. "That's the importance of commuter rail."

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, has been pushing to bring a commuter rail system to Central Florida since a light-rail proposal collapsed three years ago. He said a limited system could be up and running within two years.

Commuter rail differs from light rail in that it generally covers greater distances and could transport suburban residents to jobs downtown. It's also cheaper, at an estimated cost of $50 million, compared to about $1 billion for light rail.

But its stops likely would be at least 10 miles apart, whereas light-rail systems usually have stations within a mile of each other. Commuter rail also would accommodate a relatively low number of passengers.

With a proposed route that would have three commuter trains going from DeLand to downtown Orlando in the morning, and three returning in the evening, transportation planners say it could serve about 2,200 people a day. The system could be expanded, but that involves rerouting and rescheduling more freight trains.

Until recently, local officials assumed they would have to submit their rail plans to Congress by early next year to qualify for all-important federal funds, which are being counted on to cover half of whatever is decided on.

Congress typically makes decisions about mass-transit projects every five to seven years, meaning if officials didn't win funds next year, they might have to wait until 2010 to ask again. But it's possible that the funds could be available again within three years.

"If it's a three-year window, it may give us more time," Crotty said of selling a plan to the public.

But in all likelihood, according to officials in Washington, the timing of federal funds will remain the same.

In addition to talk about commuter rail, the commission discussed how to deal with existing trains.

There are 245 at-grade crossings in Orange, where roads and rails meet, causing hours of delays. Transportation commissioners were asked to consider three options: Spend $155 million to $670 million on bypass freight tracks around the urban core, spend $230 million to run tracks over or below a dozen of the busiest roadways or some combination of both.

The cost estimates are ballpark numbers, according to Orange staffers.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

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