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Leaders hope region's attractions can stop a bullet train

(The following report by Michael W. Freeman appeared on the Lakeland Ledger website on November 6.)

FOUR CORNERS, Fla. -- The recent decision by the Florida High-Speed Rail Authority to approve a bullet train route favored by Disney is being greeted warmly in the Four Corners area -- assuming, of course, that the final route includes a stop in Northeast Polk County.

"As far as the selection of the route, I think they made the only decision that made economic sense right now," said state Rep. John K. Stargel, R-Lakeland, who represents Northeast Polk. "Disney has approximately 2 million passengers a year that Disney will commit to having rides from the airport to their property. That difference alone will make the train's operating budget profitable within just a couple of years of construction."

But Stargel also stressed that a station in Northeast Polk, in the heart of the Four Corners, would also serve to introduce all those tourists to a part of Central Florida of which they might not be fully aware.

"I actually went to the public hearings on this project," Stargel said. "I was very concerned about the entire (rail) corridor. One of my concerns is why are we only having a stop at Disney, a stop at Lakeland and a stop in Tampa?

"I talked to them about the fact that if you look at New York City's subway system, they have trains that stop intermittently along the way," he said. "They said they will not rule that out at all as demand for certain stops increases. So we could end up having five stops along the path in a few years, once they show demand has increased for ridership."

Lori Cunningham, executive director of the Greater Haines City Chamber of Commerce, agreed that a high-speed rail with a stop in Four Corners would be a huge boost to the entire region.

"Any time you can direct traffic through Polk County that's going to be a benefit to the area," she said. "We've been looking closely at the (potential) stops and which ones they're going to choose. If we could have a stop off the Polk Parkway, it would benefit everybody, particularly the people in Northeast Polk, and we would like to see that stop."

The area Cunningham was referring to is on U.S. 27 near the former Baseball City complex. Last month, Victor Posner Enterprises and its subsidiary, Boardwalk Land Developments Inc., announced they were planning to transform the empty complex into Posner Park, a development modeled after a turn-of-the-century European Garden City with shops, restaurants, businesses and luxury apartment buildings surrounding pedestrian plazas.

With Posner Park on the way, Cunningham said a train stop close to it would enable tourists and other visitors to Central Florida to see what Polk County is all about.

"They might never have seen the things we have to offer and the quality of life we have here in the county," she said. "A good central location for a stop would be in Polk County, so residents of Northeast Polk County wouldn't have to travel all the way to the west to use the train. We're hoping we can place it strategically where all our citizens can reach it."

The eight-member rail authority selected a route that would run from Orlando International Airport along the Central Florida GreeneWay to Disney World. An alternative route would have traveled along the Bee Line Expressway and stopped at the Orange County Convention Center on International Drive.

It was seen as a war between two counties within the Four Corners with Orange County and Orlando attractions like Universal Studies, International Drive and the Orlando Convention Center -- which will not have stops on the GreeneWay route -- going up against Disney and Osceola County.

Mike Horner, president of the Kissimmee/Osceola Chamber of Commerce, praised the authority's final decision.

"The issue that was decided on Monday was the authority's recommendation on the route," Horner said. "On the issue of the route, the Chamber has been very clear. We passed a resolution -- as did Osceola County, the city of Kissimmee and the Osceola Resort Area Council -- all in support of the GreeneWay route.

"Our primary concern has been that if they had used the Bee Line route, then light rail would never have access to the southern part of the region," he said. "There's only enough room along I-4 for one rail. So we think the High Speed Rail Authority made the right choice, and we support their decision.

"The major issue for the Chamber was we wanted to make sure that the route that was selected would not preclude us from participating in future regional transportation initiates. That was our emphasis," he added.

Still, as Horner noted, it's too early to begin speculating on what impact this rail line will have on the Central Florida economy, since it's not clear if it will even get built. The project has the opposition of Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been slow to approve any funding for it and has suggested the issue should go back to voters through a ballot referendum in 2004.

Fifty-two percent of Florida voters approved a 2000 referendum to establish the bullet train. But since then, many state lawmakers from outside of Central Florida have questioned whether this project will become a costly boondoggle and earlier this year area lawmakers had to fight an effort to send the issue back to voters next year.

"There's a long way to go on this particular project," said Horner, who is a candidate for state House District 41, which covers the Lake, Orange and Osceola sections of Four Corners. "I think it's premature for anyone to say this thing is a done deal. Clearly, having a high-speed rail stop in Osceola County is a good thing. But I don't know that this is going to happen."

Stargel agreed that the task of selling the project to fellow lawmakers isnt over, by any means. "That's what we hear from Jacksonville legislators and legislators from the Panhandle that `This won't impact me, so I won't support it,' " Stargel said adding that his response is: "This will be a boost to Florida's economy if it goes through not only with the construction of the rail but the additional tourists it will bring here."

According to the constitutional amendment passed in 2000, the state must have a contract signed with a builder before the end of this month. Last week, the authority selected a $2.1 billion proposal from FluorBombardier, which has proposed a diesel turbine jet train over an electric train proposed by Global Rail Consortium. Consultants have estimated the state would have to pay $46 million a year for 30 years to pay off the bonds on the FluorBombardier proposal.

Consultants have also estimated that the GreeneWay-to-Disney route would carry 4 million passengers a year and generate $55.1 million in revenues by 2010, which Stargel said means the project could help pay for itself.

"We could start paying back part of the funds of the cost to build the train," he said, adding that the benefits to the state and local economy far outweigh the short term costs.

"For Polk County -- and the same is true for Hillsboro County -- once the rail is built, people that fly in from Brazil to Orange County will be able to pay to go to Busch Gardens (in Tampa), then ride back through Polk County and stop there and, over time, there will be more and more attractions here and reasons for them to come to Polk County," Stargel said.

Still, Stargel said he's aware that the bullet train was originally envisioned as a fast moving line from Orlando to Tampa, and with few stops along the way.

"One of the proposals would be to stop at Disney and not have another stop until Lakeland," he said. "Obviously, if they stop at every single stop along the way, you lose the impact of high-speed rail." Stargel said he hopes increased ridership can convince the authority to establish another stop in Northeast Polk.

So does Cunningham, and the issue of tourism promotion has become an increasingly important one to Polk County, which this year lost one of its major attractions with the closing of Cypress Gardens.

The Polk County Tourist Development Council is now working on a plan to build a tourist information center along U.S. 27 just south of Interstate 4. The concept was recommended by Randall Travel Marketing Inc. of Mooresville, N.C., which reported that the county would benefit by building a new "Central Florida Interpretive Center" that could also serve as a visitor center.

Thursday, November 6, 2003

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