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Rivals bicker over Fla. high speed rail routes

ORLANDO, Fla. -- As a group of international consortia prepare bids to run the state's high-speed rail project, a local feud over its route shows no sign of ending, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Orange County officials want the system -- approved by voters two years ago -- to run from Orlando International Airport to the Orange County Convention Center via the Bee Line Expressway, State Road 528. From there, it would shoot down Interstate 4 on its way to Tampa.

But WaltDisney World officials want the line to run along State Road 417, the Central Florida GreeneWay, skipping the convention center. The convention center area, company officials say, would be better served by light rail linking it to the airport, Disney and downtown Orlando.

County officials don't dismiss light rail, but they are loath to give up a high-speed link to the airport.

Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty says the Bee Line route to the convention center "makes the most sense" given that the center is a huge public facility located in the heart of the tourist district -- an area he calls "Downtown Orange County."

The vice president of the Peabody hotel has been even more pointed. In an Oct. 29 letter, Alan Villaverde said not serving the convention center with high-speed rail would be "unconscionable."

Disney officials counter that building high-speed rail between the airport and International Drive would chew up right of way, which would make it difficult to build light rail, a more useful type for locals. High-speed rail, they say, should be kept to the GreeneWay.

In 2000, voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring officials to build a high-speed rail system serving Florida's five largest urban areas. The first leg of that system is to run from Orlando to Tampa and is expected to cost about $1.5 billion.

The state hopes federal officials will cover half the costs of construction, leaving Florida taxpayers and one of the private consortia to pick up the rest. Once built, the private group ultimately chosen by the state will cover operating costs.

The state will probably begin construction by mid-2004 -- a year later than required by the amendment -- with the system open to passengers by 2008.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

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