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Disney, Fla. county clash over rail path

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Although Florida is years away from laying the first mile of track for its proposed high-speed rail network, there's already been a collision in centralFlorida, according to the Associated Press.

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 draw 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.

Last month, a survey of 600 people found that 91 percent thought the rail line should include a station at the convention center. And 78 percent said Disney also should have a stop on the line. The survey had a margin of error of 4 percent.

High-speed rail was voted into the state constitution two years ago. The first planned leg, running from Tampa to Orlando, is expected to cost about $1.5 billion with construction scheduled 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 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.

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 offering 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. Buses now 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.

By contrast, the convention center and International Drive has an estimated captive market of just 530,000 for a revenue of $6.4 million.

``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.''

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

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