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Rail route decision pleases local officials

(The following article by Sylvia L. Oliande was posted on the Osceola News-Gazette website on October 30.)

OSCEOLA, Fla. -- Osceola County community leaders applauded a 7 to 1 decision this week by the state High Speed Rail Authority to choose the GreeneWay route as the preferred route from Tampa to Orlando for the planned statewide bullet train.

The preferred route travels north on Interstate 4 from Tampa, makes a stop in the Walt Disney World area and then runs along State Road 417, also known as the Central Florida GreeneWay, and over to the Orlando International Airport.

Osceola County Commis-sioner Atlee Mercer called the authority?s vote a "watershed" decision for Central Florida and a victory for the future of the county?s economic development efforts.

As an elected official and as vice chairman of the Lynx board, Mercer lobbied rail authority members to choose the GreeneWay route for the $2.2 billion system because he said it was the only one of the two that preserves the chances of establishing a light rail system that could run through the region.

The GreeneWay route, un-like the Bee Line Expressway route preferred by Orange County and many of its businesses, does not take up space on I-4 that might one day be used for a light rail system.

"It was the right thing to do," Mercer said. "They were smart in making it [the decision]."

The two routes for the 90-mile segment ? the first planned for what is to be a statewide system ? were the same coming out of Tampa along I-4. The Bee Line route had it continuing up I-4 and heading east along State Road 528.

Walt Disney World officials have been outspoken in their preference for the Greene-Way route for a long time, promising land for a station and pledging to discontinue bus service at the airport and to market the train to its millions of visitors only if that route is chosen.

Osceola County officials became involved in the debate in January and even pledged to cover a portion of any operating shortfalls over 10 years as an incentive for the authority to choose the GreeneWay.

At the meeting on Monday, the authority also voted 6 to 2 to choose Fluor Bombardier as the company to design, build, operate and maintain this first phase of the system.

The panel also conditioned the approval of the preferred route on the authority reaching an agreement with Walt Disney World and the Orlando/Orange County Ex-pressway Authority, which owns the toll road along which the system would be built.

Still, there is still a long, uncertain road ahead before a bullet train is established.

Voters statewide ordered the state to establish a high-speed link between the state?s major cities, but there has been some political opposition to it.

Efficient Transportation for the Community, a nonprofit group made up of businesses on International Drive, fought against the GreeneWay route because they said it didn?t make sense to have a rail system that bypasses the Orange County Convention Center and hotels and attractions nearby.

Kelly Smith, an attorney and consultant for Efficient Transportation for the Com-munity, said the vote was just the first step toward establishing the rail system. Still ahead is the state actually allocating money for the project.

"It?s just the very beginning of the whole process," Smith said. "The Legislature and the governor have the final say."

Gov. Jeb Bush has been vocal in his opposition to the project, citing its high cost.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

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