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Fla. rail plan gives Orange unfair edge, Osceola says

(The Orlando Sentinel posted the following story by Jim Stratton on its website on April 14.)

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Orange County officials pushing to bring the state's planned high-speed rail line to International Drive may get an added measure of clout.

A proposal from Rep. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, would require the County Commission to formally endorse or reject any rail route recommended by the Florida High Speed Rail Authority. The county's decision would then have to be considered when state legislators make a final route selection.

Gardiner said he drafted the legislation to ensure lawmakers heard from local officials.

The amendment also asks for recommendations from the Florida Department of Transportation, the Florida Department of Community Affairs and Metroplan Orlando, Central Florida's lead transportation-planning agency.

"I think everybody's got to weigh in on this," said Gardiner, who represents Orange County. "It's too important not to."

But not everyone is included in Gardiner's amendment. It does not, for example, call for Osceola County to make a recommendation. That's critical because Osceola and Orange disagree about what route the multibillion-dollar train should take through Central Florida.

Osceola leaders and Walt Disney World executives want the train to run from Orlando International Airport to Disney along State Road 417.

Orange County and I-Drive businesses want it to run along the Bee Line Expressway on its way to the Orange County Convention Center on south I-Drive. Gardiner also favors the Bee Line route.

Critics saythatby making Orange County's preference legally part of the factors the Legislature must consider, Gardiner's amendment steamrolls over the wishes of Osceola.

"I'm not comfortable with any of this," said Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee. "To put this into law is totally inappropriate."

Attkisson said to be fair, each county affected by the rail route should get the same consideration from lawmakers. He said Gardiner's amendment caters to the wishes of Orange County, ignoring that the S.R. 417 route would generate the most ridership because Disney has pledged to fill the train with its visitors.

Consultants estimate the S.R. 417 route would attract about 4 million riders a year by 2010. The Bee Line would generate about 2.8 million trips.

Disney spokeswoman Marilyn Waters said her company also dislikes the amendment, saying, "All of the counties affected should be treated the same way."

The provision could complicate things politically for Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty. For months, Crotty has been walking a tightrope:

He has been trying to make the county's case without directly taking on Disney.

If Gardiner's proposal survives -- it must pass out of committee and be approved by the Legislature -- Disney and Osceola officials might think Crotty backed the amendment to give the county more influence over the system's route.

Crotty was not immediately available for comment, but Gardiner said he crafted the proposal without consulting the Orange County chairman.

Gardiner also said he's not opposed to altering the language if Osceola County feels it's being treated unfairly.

"I'll work with Osceola to put them in," he said. "I don't want to prevent them from participating."

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2000 requiring the state to begin building a high-speed rail network linking Florida's five largest urban areas by late 2003. The controversial plan will cost several billion dollars and faces stiff opposition.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

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