Route to be set for high-speed rail
(The following article by Bill Rufty was posted on the Lakeland Ledger website on October 24.)
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Crucial decisions for Florida's proposed bullet train are set to occur Monday in Orlando when the High Speed Rail Authority votes on a route between Tampa and Orlando and decides which of two companies will build the line and run the train.
A decision on whether to have a Lakeland station and its location will not be made until next year after the chosen builder and authority members have reviewed the engineering plans for the route.
Last Monday, the Lakeland City Commission voted to support a high-speed rail station near the Kathleen Road-Interstate 4 interchange. The site is east of the Cambridge Cove development.
Consultants have listed that site and one at the western terminus of the Polk County Parkway as the best choices if the builder and the authority decide to have a stop in the Lakeland area.
Monday's session of the authority will be held in the Adair Room of the Orlando Expo Center, 500 West Livingston St., beginning at 9 a.m. and is expected to run most of the day.
The final choice of preferred route and vendor will be included with the results of several public hearings in a massive permit application to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Approval by the Federal Railroad Administration is necessary before actual construction can begin and before the state can receive what authority members think will be millions of dollars in federal rapid transit funds for construction.
The first phase of the bullet train route will begin at the Orlando International Airport and end at a new station to be built on Laurel Street in downtown Tampa.
It will run down the median of Interstate 4. The likely Tampa route will leave I-4 at 14th Street and hug the southern edge of the interstate until it gets to Laurel.
But the controversy over the Orlando end of the first phase has delayed route decisions for more than three months.
Walt Disney World officials want the high-speed rail track to run from the airport alongside the Central Florida GreeneWay toll road to Celebration, where Disney has promised to build a station.
But other Orlando attractions, plus the hotels on International Drive and Orange County commissioners, want the train to stop at the Orange County Convention Center first and then go to Disney.
If that happens, Disney officials have said, they won't participate in the system. That could be a serious problem for authority members who are under the gun to make sure the bullet train produces sufficient revenue.
Disney has 2.5 million visitors annually who now go straight to Disney from the Orlando Airport aboard Disney buses. If the route goes straight to Disney without any stops before, Disney promises to pay the fares of those 2.5 million riders.
The authority needs to make some decisions soon. The constitutional amendment approved by 53 percent of the Florida voters in the 2000 election requires that construction begin by Nov. 1.
The authority has declared that a designated route and a signed preliminary contract with the preferred builder will constitute the beginning of construction.
But the authority and its supporters still must contend with Gov. Bush, a strong opponent of the high-speed rail system.
The father of the latest incarnation of the four decades-long infatuation with a bullet train in Florida, Lakeland insurance company investor C.C. "Doc" Dockery, said he is not worried.
Dockery, who led the old High Speed Rail Commission under Gov. Bob Martinez, spent $3 million of his own money to get the issue on the 2000 ballot after Bush killed the project in his first year as governor.
Dockery has spent even more trying to keep Bush, once a political ally, from killing the program. Dockery is a member of the current Florida High Speed Rail Authority.
"I am confident that the authority will conclude its business on Oct. 27 with a preferred route and preferred vendor in accordance with the wishes of a majority of the voters," Dockery said earlier this month.
Friday, October 24, 2003
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