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Orlando Getting Light Rails

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By Jason Garcia and Scott Powers | Sentinel Staff Writers

Posted February 15, 2005

Orange County and Orlando leaders have launched a new bid for a light-rail system that would link Orlando International Airport, International Drive and the city's downtown -- resurrecting the controversial $1.3 billion project the county killed six years ago.

County Mayor Rich Crotty and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer have asked Congress to find money for a local light-rail train as it puts together its transportation spending plan for the next six years.

As part of the arrangement, the city and the county appear poised to unite behind a plan to build the train's first leg between the airport and the Orange County Convention Center on I-Drive, resolving one of the key disputes that doomed earlier light-rail efforts.

"A light-rail system connecting the Orlando International Airport, the Orange County Convention Center and the downtown Orlando area is critically important to our region and to the city of Orlando," Dyer wrote in a letter sent Monday to U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who serves on the House Transportation Committee.

The Orlando mayor touts a light-rail plan in his letter that begins at the airport and extends first to the convention center on I-Drive and then to the Lynx Central Station downtown, with stops at the Lee Vista Center office park just north of the airport and the Florida Mall.

City officials put the price tag for the route at $1.3 billion. The leg from the convention center to downtown is part of another light-rail proposal being studied by state officials.

That "north-south light rail" project is proposed to run north and south from Altamonte Springs, through downtown to International Drive, at a cost of $1.3 billion.

Dyer's words of support for beginning light rail at the airport is a sharp reversal to the city's position under former Mayor Glenda Hood, who six years ago fought vehemently to build the first leg of the train between downtown and I-Drive.

County leaders lobbied for the airport line, saying that more people would use the train on that route.

City officials countered that such a route would cater almost exclusively to tourists, as opposed to a downtown route that many locals could use.

Hood accused Orange County leaders of trying to build a "tourist train" and said they had "lost sight of our residents, especially those who live in our cities."

County commissioners killed the project in September 1999 when they voted 4-3 against contributing to a $600 million downtown-to-International Drive route. The decision left more than $450 million in state and federal money on the table.

Mica recently approached local leaders, urging them to take up the project again now that Congress is compiling its next transportation priority list.

"I encouraged them to reach an agreement on where they want to run the first leg of light rail," Mica said.

"We're starting all over."

In an interview Monday, Dyer stopped short of wholly endorsing the airport train link but said Orlando would support "whatever makes the most economic sense and whatever we can get up and out of the ground."

"The project won't be killed by a disagreement over what the first leg will be," he said.

Crotty, who also urged Mica to find money for light rail, said starting the train at the airport makes the most sense because that route would attract the most riders. And he said getting that first phase in place would make it easier to build extensions "be it to downtown or whatever."

"To me, it's perfectly logical," Crotty said.

Three routes are being considered. The one emerging as the favorite would start at the Orange County Convention Center and cut northeast to John Young Parkway along the future extension of Canadian Court. The train would head north on John Young to Sand Lake Road, then follow Sand Lake and McCoy Road most of the way to Semoran Boulevard (State Road 436). From there, the route would head into the airport.

That route is winning out over two others being reviewed by the Florida Department of Transportation because it links more business sectors, providing more chance that local people would use the train.

The other routes would follow either Florida's Turnpike or the Bee Line Expressway (S.R. 528) most of the way to the airport.

When it decides which projects get federal grants, the Federal Transit Administration wants to see the trains moving local people more than helping visitors get in and out of town.

"Light rail is supposed to be more community driven, with more local people, to take people from an activity center to an activity center," said Tawny Olore, rail project manager for the Department of Transportation's District 5, which includes Orange County.

By cutting through large proposed development areas northeast of the convention center, passing near the Florida Mall, then swinging past industrial areas along Tradeport Drive and Sand Lake Road, the Sand Lake route has more of a chance to do that than the other two alternatives, Olore said.

A state study to be completed next month projects 11,864 riders a day on the Sand Lake route. But the study does not break down how many of those might be visitors coming from the airport to International Drive.

The study estimates the line would cost $55.2 million a year to operate and maintain.

It would also connect with a separate plan for commuter rail -- larger trains that run on existing freight tracks and make fewer stops. Mica is pushing hard for a 61-mile, $332 million commuter-rail project that could connect DeLand to Kissimmee through downtown.

Despite the show of unity between the city and the county, officials cautioned that plenty of hurdles remain ahead.

Even under a best-case scenario, Mica said, it would take four years of studies, planning and design work before construction began.

"I will authorize federal funds for the project now that we have an agreement. But there's much more work to be done," Mica said.

Still, that the city and the county have agreed to go after the federal money is "critical," Mica said.

"They miss this one, and we'd be another six years behind."

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I hope they finally get the transit they need! I know Orlando has had trouble winning over light-rail, but they seem to have smart leaders, from my initial perspective at least.

I like how they're planning for Light and Heavy rail systems, and hopefully, the different modes will meet at the LYNX station. That station is great, and I love how they left room for future transit, whether it be light or existing heavy rail.

I'm crossing my fingers, lol.

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yea I read this article

one of hte most positive things to see in quite some time. This is bigger than alot of the development going on downtown. There's simply 2 things every major city needs, a thriving downtown & good public transit. I hope this goes through!

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Hopefully everything works out this time. By now, the everyone should have realized the big mistake they made 6 or 7 years ago, by not approving the original light rail plan. Maybe this will be a good example for Tampa & St. Pete to finally work together to get light rail there too.

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I wonder if this will run along portions of I-Drive? I was there this weekend (against my will...I get hives every time I'm down in tourist country) and it is always so crowded. Lots of pedestrians, even more cars. I've always thought this would be an ideal place for a light rail line. Yeah, it'd be mostly used by tourists. But every tourist on light rail means that there's one less tourist on the road...which would make my drive all that much better.

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The original plan had light rail running down the median of I-drive with a number of stops. Many of the business (John Morgan "for the people") complained that the construction would harm their businesses, so an alternative route was chosen behind most of the I-drive businesses.

It'll also be interesting to see if Winter Park gets on board and allows light rail beside their beloved Central Park. Since then Winter Park Village has stollen a lot of business, and Baldwin Park may do the same. Downtown Winter Park is now gaining a lot of new residences. We'll see what they do.

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I would not hold your breath for Federal Funding. See this thread for details of 2006 funding plans from the feds. For every system approved they turn down 6. Orlando is really going to have to do its homework for this to work. (The Feds wont consider more than 50% funding BTW)

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^I agree, the Feds recently killed the Tampa light rail plan, by rejecting it three times in a row. The best option may be for the city/county to pony up and agree to pay for at least 75% of it, themselves. Another idea may be for private companies, like Universal & Sea World, to help fund it as well, since it will greatly benefit them.

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I just don't see the feds coughing up the money apart from a loud 'Amen!' from Orange Countians to a tax increase. I just don't see it happening.

Also, will this in any way interfere with commuter rail, or is that a separate pile of money ?

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Now would this rail line make several stops on the john young, and sand lake r would it be a direct shot to the airport? I could see a plan taking it from the Airport up Semoran to the East-West to downtown, with stops at Conway, ann Underhill area. Just hope citizens and gov get their act together to look at whats good for orlando not just bickering. Looks like they are as of yet.

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Now would this rail line make several stops on the john young, and sand lake r would it be a direct shot to the airport? I could see a plan taking it from the Airport up Semoran to the East-West to downtown, with stops at Conway, ann Underhill area. Just hope citizens and gov get their act together to look at whats good for orlando not just bickering. Looks like they are as of yet.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

It's very difficult to get citizens to take one for the team when they know they are not likely to benefit from a tax increase.

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It's very difficult to get citizens to take one for the team when they know they are not likely to benefit from a tax increase

thats the problem. We need to make it benefit them so they can agree on a tax increase. I hope this new project can do that. Otherwise I cant blame them for not wanting to pay for something that wont benefit them.

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thats the problem. We need to make it benefit them so they can agree on a tax increase. I hope this new project can do that. Otherwise I cant blame them for not wanting to pay for something that wont benefit them.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Therein lies the rub. They thought they had a plan in mobility 2020 that had a little something everyone. A team of virtual 'who's whos' was assembled to promote it, polls had it winning big, the Sentinel declared Doug Guetzloe 'irrelevant'...

...and 2020 got crushed.

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Mobility 2020 failed is because they want to toll people to use I-4, it turned off many people.

Anyway, about the funding from Fed, come on...we are Orlando, course we will get the money. Just wish the enitre light rail from downtown to airport would be built at once

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Mobility 2020 failed is because they want to toll people to use I-4, it turned off many people.

Anyway, about the funding from Fed, come on...we are Orlando, course we will get the money. Just wish the enitre light rail from downtown to airport would be built at once

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Of course ! Why didn't l think of that ? We're Orlando, dammit ! B)

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Mobility 2020 failed is because they want to toll people to use I-4, it turned off many people.

Anyway, about the funding from Fed, come on...we are Orlando, course we will get the money. Just wish the enitre light rail from downtown to airport would be built at once

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

exactly

mobility 20/20 didn't fail because orange county doesn't want to pay for its road woes... it was so badly marketed that nobody saw the real benefits. They touted most of the money would go toward adding "lexus lanes" on I-4, and did little to hype the idea of public transit. In reality only a small chunk of the money raised would have gone to light rail anyway.

Believe me, the county realized it's mistake & it will try to run another tax increase in a few years (2006 or so I heard). This time around they will realize people don't want their money thrown away on exclusive toll lanes and will come up with better ways to spend the money.

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exactly

mobility 20/20 didn't fail because orange county doesn't want to pay for its road woes... it was so badly marketed that nobody saw the real benefits.  They touted most of the money would go toward adding "lexus lanes" on I-4, and did little to hype the idea of public transit.  In reality only a small chunk of the money raised would have gone to light rail anyway.

Believe me, the county realized it's mistake & it will try to run another tax increase in a few years (2006 or so I heard).  This time around they will realize people don't want their money thrown away on exclusive toll lanes and will come up with better ways to spend the money.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

But they didn't tout the 'lexus lanes'. That's what the opposition (which the Sentinel declared irrelevant) said...and the voters believed it.

I really, really thought 2020 was going to pass. It's just that the axe-the-tax faction was much more impassioned than were the rail folks.

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I don't blame the opposition for the failure of Mobility 20/20 as much as I blame the geniuses who decided to put the idea of toll roads on I-4 into the mix in the first place. Was that the Expressway Authority's contribution?

Anyone with just a smidge of public relations savvy could have predicted the outcome of this. No one likes a toll road, no matter how effecient, pretty, convenient, etc. it is. They are necessary evils in Orlando. People use them because they have to, not because they want to.

So even the thought of putting toll lanes on I-4 -- the only non-toll major thoroughfare in the region -- instantly turned a lot of people off to Mobility 20/20.

And honestly, who can blame them? The message that was sent -- and again, this is a lesson in how not to wage a public relations campaign -- was that people were going to have to pay more in taxes for better roads, and then pay more in tolls to use them.

Mobility 20/20 had some good ideas, but it always felt like it was quickly slapped together as a short-term solution. But I hope that in the future, if another big transportation plan is pushed, that there's just as much emphasis on smart planning and regional cooperation as there is on simply building more roads.

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I dont think most people in Orlando really see the benefits of mass transit, not that I blame them really but i'd like to think its possible to turn Orlando's horrific traffic situation into an opportunity for lightrail, commuter, heavy, whatever. I do honestly feel that tourists may be more inclined to use lightrail over citizens. If we could just get tourists off our roads that would help a great deal.

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I guess what I'm trying to say is that, overall, it was the tax increase part of Mobility 2020 that got it shot down.

And toll roads and 'Lexus lanes' are just rationalizations, primarily. I believe this is the case because after 2020 went down in flames, when various detractors were asked if they would have approved the plan in another form, the common denominator appeared to be, 'No new taxes!'

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Its no secret that Orlando's traffic woes are a direct result of all traffic dumbing into I-4 and the only other options are tolls. I can't think of any other city with so many tolls. Its really the last thing this city needs more of.

I know a lot of people that voted against it, and a lot of the talk about 20/20 was those "lexus lanes" on top of taxes.

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... the common denominator appeared to be, 'No new taxes!'

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I disagree. I think Mobility 20/20 was on track, no pun intended, until the "Lexus Lane" concept came up. Even if it was a small part of the plan, and even if the opposition seriously overhyped it, this was what soured so many people to Mobility 20/20.

I think another part of the problem was that Mobility 20/20 itself didn't really live up to the hype. It was presented as a big-picture, big-thinking panacea to the region's transportation woes. Instead, it was, in a nutshell, just another run-of-the-mill road expansion project. If Mobility 20/20 had been full of great ideas, perhaps it wouldn't have been sunk by one lousy one that wasn't even a big part of the package.

As for light rail, I'm all for it. But I can see why it's not so popular among locals. The Orlando metro is so spread out, making an effective and practical light rail system a daunting challenge. How many blocks would a person have to walk from light rail stations to their home or job? How many buses would they have to take in addition to light rail to get where they are going? Would it be quicker just to drive? If that's the case, it would be hard to convince people with cars -- even well-meaning, urban planning enthusiasts -- to hop on board a train, and then a bus, and then a walk, instead of a quick trip in the ol' car.

I think it would be easier to convince the tourists. Get them off the roads, and that will help. Heck, I'd park somewhere and then ride a train up and down I-Drive rather than deal with the traffic down there. It's a mess. A working light rail system in that part of town would be a great start to developing other rail lines throughout the region. Start there, get it working and then spread the system elsewhere.

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The hard part of light rail is that it only becomes viable when all the pieces are in place. You have to be able to get from the east to the northwest; fom the west to the northeast; from south to southwest and so on. It'll be hard to find a large enough group to buy-in when you only show them a single route. When "selling" light-rail you have to be able to get people to focus on the future vision an not just the initial route. Sell the whole concept.The Metro

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