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Authority to choose route for high-speed rail

(The News Chief posted the following story by Steven N. Levine on its website on October 9.)

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Proponents of the state's $5.6 billion to $11.2 billion high-speed rail will soon hear East Polk business roar, according to Ron Morrow, East Polk Committee of 100 executive director.

Morrow demanded Wednesday that a proposed Polk County terminal be moved east from Kathleen Road in Lakeland to near the intended site of a University of South Florida research campus. The Ridge business lobby plans to ask member chambers of commerce to add their voices to the call this month, Morrow said.

"The planned stop is so far removed from half the population of this county that nobody will use it," Morrow told members and staff of the Florida High Speed Rail Authority during a federally-required hearing at the Lakeland Center. "Let's put it where people are going to use it. Over 52 or 53 percent of the population live near that terminus."

Morrow was among only nine speakers at the second of three scheduled public hearings on the project's environmental impact. About 70 persons attended including Lakeland natives E.G. and Betty Hayes who'd be only too happy for someone to build the bullet train's Polk County terminal anywhere other than near their house.

Construction just on Interstate 4 improvements alone has removed all the trees and may have worsened flooding in their neighborhood, Betty Hayes said. Extra asphalt and concrete associated with the rail terminal will just make a bad situation worse, E.G. Hayes said.

"They'd have to have an awful lot of drainage there," he said. "Water runs downhill and we're at the bottom of the hill. That's what I'm worried about."

Six speakers, including Morrow and the county's economic development department, support the 95-mile project that will cost between $2.05 billion and $2.5 billion to build its initial leg from Tampa to Orlando International Airport. U.S. House Transportation Committee Chair Don Young wants to grant states bonding authority specifically for high-speed rail construction.

Two speakers objected to the plan largely on safety grounds. Trains on the single or dual rail line are expected to run at up to 160 mph between the east and west lanes of Interstate 4. Winter Haven rail buff Foster Bond Jr. believes the project is impractical still recalling the horrific 1960s crash of the original Silver Meteor.

"The trains ran into each other and ended up 50 feet into the citrus orchard. And that was with one training running at 50 mph, and the other stationary," Bond said. "If its elevated, I don't know how you will contain it. It will end up on the ground."

The vast majority of historic property incursions, eminent domain takings and noise and vibration problems occur in urban areas like Orlando and Tampa including a projected impact on Ybor City. Polk County had no major environmental impacts noted.

Environmentalists praised the high-speed rail's electric locomotive option particularly over the gas turbine locomotive. While slightly more expensive and noisier than gas turbine engines, electric trains powered by overhead lines will run faster, occupy slightly less space and use substantially less fossil fuel.

"High speed rail will win big time," Polk County Sierra Club member John Ryan said.

Written comments will be accepted into the record by mail or Internet at www.floridahighspeedrail.org until Oct. 20. The high-speed rail authority is expected to choose a route on Oct. 27 and either Fluor Bombardier or Global Rail Consortium as the bullet train's prime contractor. The preferred route currently falls within the existing rights of way of I-4, I-275, the Orlando-area's Bee Line and Central Florida Greeneway and CSX railroad.

Voters in November 2000 passed the high-speed rail referendum by 53 percent. The constitutional amendment requires construction begin by November, despite spirited resistance from the rail line's harshest critic, Gov. Jeb Bush.

Thursday, October 9, 2003

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