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I-Drive needs transit system for conventions, many

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I-Drive needs transit system for conventions, many say

By Dan Tracy

Sentinel Staff Writer

Posted April 18, 2005

Gliding along a four-mile track, the $650 million monorail daily ferries thousands of passengers to and from eight flashy casinos and the city's convention center, even as traffic congeals along the much-celebrated Strip.

TOM BURTON/ORLANDO SENTINEL

A monorail runs past the Stratosphere in Las Vegas in May. The monorail was undergoing tests and now connects several resorts and the convention center. In January, it carried a daily average 29,000 riders who paid $3 apiece for a one-way ticket.

Calling it a "novelty attraction" as well as an appealing alternative to cabs and walking, Las Vegas Convention Center spokeswoman Erika Yowell said, "It's really a popular way to get around." And it's a way to help Las Vegas hang on to its ranking as the nation's No. 1 convention destination.

Compare that with the Orange County/Orlando version of the Strip: the International Drive collection of hotels anchored by the $2.8 billion convention center. After two decades of talk about mass transit, the country's runner-up convention community has nothing to show but trolleys that run every 15 minutes along a four-lane road that frequently jams during shows.

"Someday, I think they'll wake up and see they missed the boat," said U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who backed the unsuccessful attempt to build a $600 million I-Drive-to-downtown light-rail project during the late 1990s.

Mica, who still is trying to secure federal money for a system that would include the convention-center corridor, offered this prediction of I-Drive without a fixed transit system: "[it] will turn into a second-rate tourist area. It will slowly demise. It will drown in its own traffic congestion."

Rosen: Just add turn lanes

Harris Rosen, whose five hotels on I-Drive include two next to the convention-center complex, disagrees. Like many hoteliers, Rosen is reluctant to back rail proposals because they invariably seek tourist-tax money to offset operating deficits. Hospitality officials are intent on using the tax largely for expanding and improving the convention center and promoting tourism.

Rosen, who has declined requests for interviews, has argued against trains for years. At a recent public meeting of the special I-Drive taxing district, he said the only critical improvement the road needs is the planned addition of turn lanes at its congested intersection with Sand Lake Road.

"The [traffic] engineers have suggested, lo and behold, this will work," he said. But a recent study by the Florida Department of Transportation suggests the area needs more than extra turn lanes.

I-Drive traffic, the study said, has increased 25 percent from 1994 to 2003. The north section is carrying almost 37,000 cars per day, 50 percent more than it was designed for. The wider south end, designed for 32,900 cars per day, is up to 27,900 and will exceed its capacity by 2007.

"Very often I-Drive is highly congested during peak periods," the study said. "In the future, congestion will only get worse. . . . This congestion decreases the quality of the visitor experience."

Even taxis can get stuck

A big convention -- such as the reported 105,000 who came to the home-builders convention in mid-January -- can mean gridlock. Delegates routinely complained about taxis taking 30 minutes to travel a few miles.

Chris Roderick, a mechanical engineer with a Tacoma, Wash., window company, said he and an associate spent $60 for a cab from I-Drive to Downtown Disney, the high fare partly the result of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

"They need a train or something to move it [traffic] a little quicker," Roderick said.

The FDOT's $700,000 study suggested several alternatives to improve I-Drive traffic: a monorail, a light-rail train, a dedicated-bus-lane system and beefing up the trolley program. The cheapest alternative is buying more trolleys, said Tawny Olore, FDOT's rail-project manager for Central Florida.

No decision has been made on what to do, but Olore said the state would not pay for any venture that helps only I-Drive. FDOT's top priority, she said, is securing at least $360 million for a commuter-rail train that would run 61 miles, from Volusia County to Polk County.

Ken McAvoy, a senior vice president with one of the country's largest convention-show companies, thinks I-Drive needs a transit setup to move meeting-goers and tourists.

"They've got to get people off the ground and into the air," said McAvoy, whose company, Reed Exhibitions, puts on five events a year at the Orange center.

The county, he said, should set aside I-Drive property taxes to finance an elevated system open only to people traveling between the convention center and I-Drive hotels. The system, he said, could be as simple as a raised roadway that could handle golf carts or small vehicles.

Something as mundane as a bus or golf carts likely would not work in Las Vegas, where ostentatious displays are the norm. The monorail, its cars variously painted bright yellow, green, black and rainbow, seems as much a statement about the Strip as it is a transportation system.

Privately financed by the casinos, the train opened in 2004 to repeated mechanical problems. But spokesman Todd Walker said the glitches are fixed, and the train now runs regularly on tracks behind the casinos on the east side of the Strip.

In January, it carried a daily average 29,000 riders who paid $3 apiece for a one-way ticket. During one four-day convention, the average was 37,500 -- just 2,500 below the number needed to break even.

The monorail, Walker said, reflects a realization by casino owners that their patrons were visiting three to five establishments on the Strip, not just staying on their host property. The train, they decided, would take people off Las Vegas Boulevard -- which often backs up -- and allow them to return to their home casino quicker.

Said Yowell of the convention center: "It's really been a great addition to what we have here. . . . It can only improve the efficiency with which people get around."

Jim Leusner of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Dan Tracy can be reached at 407-420-5787 or [email protected]

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Harris Rosen can take all of his money and shove it up his @#%! What a cheap pig! I-Drive is a pit, and I hope Mica is right - that it shrivels up and dies. Then Orange County can erect statues of Rosen and Crotty along I-Drive and let them rot. I'm obviously in a bad mood this morning, and reading this article sure didn't help. :angry:

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Harris Rosen can take all of his money and shove it up his @#%!  What a cheap pig!  I-Drive is a pit, and I hope Mica is right - that it shrivels up and dies.  Then Orange County can erect statues of Rosen and Crotty along I-Drive and let them rot.  I'm obviously in a bad mood this morning, and reading this article sure didn't help.  :angry:

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I'm sure yesterday's article in the Senile about the Convention Center running in the red and not coming close to projections does make your mood any better.

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I love how they are making it sound like dooms day is on the horizon. The convention center may not have done as best as expected, but they did fail to mention that major conventions were cancelled in September as a result of the weather.

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Not even the two most powerful men in the gaming industry (Adelson and Wynn) could stop the monorail, but Orlando will bend to whatever Disney dictates.

Before you couldn't see the rat for all the cheese. Now the cheese is all gone you are left with is a fat rat. Sorry, i love the magic of Disney, but not their politics.

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