Disney, Orange County debate bullet train path
(The following Associated Press story by Mike Branom was published in the January 4 issue of the Kansas City Star.)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Although the state is years away from laying the first mile of track for its proposed high-speed rail network, there's already been a collision in central Florida.
Walt Disney World wants bullet trains to run directly to its property from Orlando International Airport, bypassing the Orange County Convention Center and the adjoining tourist destinations on International Drive, the region's busiest tourism strip.
Stop there, Disney says, and you need not bother stopping on our property.
But county Chairman Rich Crotty believes a station should be near the massive convention center, third-largest in the nation and one of Orange's biggest economic engines. To make his case, Crotty turns to studies showing a route from the airport to International Drive would bring more riders and higher revenue.
Caught in the middle is the Florida High Speed Rail Authority, which will present a skeptical governor and Legislature the most lucrative, yet cheapest, alternative.
It is a conflict, which if not resolved amicably, could provide ammunition to those opposed to the state backing a bullet train.
"I don't think any one group should own the process," said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and an opponent of the bullet train plan. "If all the appropriate groups can't come to an agreement here, all they're going to do is probably cause there to be more consternation about whether high-speed rail is even a viable process."
High-speed rail was voted into the state constitution two years ago. The first planned leg, running from Tampa to Orlando, has a cost estimate of about $1.5 billion with construction forecast to start in mid-2004.
The first detailed ridership studies were released last month, and they contain the seeds of the dispute.
If the route from the Orlando airport runs along the Beeline Expressway to the convention center and Disney, then on to Tampa, it would draw an annual ridership of 1.93 million to 2.27 million in 2010. Projected revenues range from $32.9 million to $35.4 million, according to one study.
A Disney-direct path bypassing the convention center, laid parallel to the Central Florida GreeneWay south of the airport, would have an annual ridership of 1.66 million to 1.9 million with revenues ranging from $27.9 million to $29.7 million. The GreeneWay toll road forms a half-complete beltway around the Orlando metro area.
Although the numbers seem to tip the scales in favor of the Beeline, Disney's lack of cooperation would dash any planning numbers that include riders from the airport to the resort.
"We don't envision any station at WDW should the northern alternative be selected," Disney vice president for transportation Tom Lewis wrote to the authority shortly after the ridership studies were released.
"As a practical matter, I think it would be difficult for a station to be constructed on Disney property without the cooperation of Disney," acknowledged C.C. "Doc" Dockery, an authority member and the man credited for bringing bullet trains to the 2000 ballot.
Without that cooperation, the project could be doomed as Klein warned. In the upcoming legislative session, he plans to propose a bill that would ask voters to either amend the original train plan to make the project privately run or to repeal it altogether.
Gov. Jeb Bush would support Klein's effort if it appears the state would foot most of the bill for bullet trains. Shortly after taking office in 1999, Bush killed the last proposed high-speed rail network, saying it was too expensive and risky for the state.
The most expensive part of building any transportation infrastructure is the acquisitions of right of way, experts say. Cheap land is hard to come by, especially in locations near popular destinations such as Disney World.
To offset its hardball negotiating stance, Disney is dangling some valuable assets.
The company is offering some prime real estate for a station, a 50-acre parcel near the Wide World of Sports complex with easy access to Interstate 4, the Osceola Parkway and U.S. Highway 192.
And if the GreeneWay route is chosen, Disney said it would place on the trains its 2.2 million "captive market" riders - people whose transportation to the resort are included in their vacation packages. Currently, buses move those visitors.
The revenue boost the train would get from that captive market is big: $26.3 million, resulting in a possible $56 million in annual ticket sales from the GreeneWay route.
"Numbers like these would be very attractive to private investors, which would significantly reduce the need for public tax dollars," Disney said in a Nov. 21 memo to community leaders.
By contrast, the convention center and International Drive has an estimated captive market of just 530,000 for a revenue of $6.4 million.
At least one member of the rail authority believes it would be wise to pay attention to the numbers.
"I think the decision (to choose the GreeneWay) isn't made to help Disney, but it's made with the knowledge that Disney is what it is, where it is and that's where the people go," Orlando attorney Skip Fowler said. "You've got to be very pragmatic; we're spending a billion and a half dollars here."
But Crotty is applying the brakes to any premature discounting of the Beeline alternative.
"There's nothing necessarily wrong or evil about disagreement; we just have different interests and it's OK," Crotty said. "But in my mind, the community wins most with a route that would go to the convention center."
As Crotty sees it, he represents the county's voters and those voters own the convention center. Therefore, he must fight to serve the center as best he can. Also, his re-election by nearly a 3-1 margin in September provided Crotty with a mandate to tackle his top priority: unsnarling central Florida's congested roads.
Crotty will use the political capital he's amassed from 14 years in the Legislature and eight years as Orange County property appraiser. Three days after his re-election, he announced the formation of a blue-ribbon panel aimed at finding transportation solutions, and "you could just hear me raking my (political) chips off the table."
"There are those would argue that a county chairman opposed to Disney may get votes and not lose them," Crotty said.
Monday, January 6, 2003
Like us on Facebook at
Sign up for BLET News Flash Alerts