Orlando progress helping local transit plans gain traction
TAMPA - When Hillsborough County aviation officials gather Thursday for their monthly meeting, their focus will range from how to handle height zoning variances, to launching a search for an airport director, to jump-starting a committee to get nonstop service to a Latin American hub. By comparison, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority ventured beyond its agenda this month to reveal its plan to combine a new airline terminal complex with a rail station the group boldly envisions will become the Grand Central Station of Florida. How Bay area travel patterns and Tampa International Airport could be affected by Orlando's plans and dreams is a long way from being determined. Yet by virtue of Orlando's central location and plans to build a high-speed rail line from Tampa and Orlando by 2015 and to Miami by 2018, the combination rail-airline concept could affect travel from the Bay area to South Florida."In the big picture, we are in the transportation business, not in the airport business," Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said after the aviation board meeting that included the unveiling of the transportation vision. "This will become a transportation hub for all of Florida." Orlando officials want the first phase of the rail terminal in operation when high-speed rail starts up in five years, but the terminal plan has no designated funding. They hope money will become available with future federal high-speed rail funding beyond the $1.25 billion already allocated to reach the $2.6 billion total for the Orlando-Lakeland-Tampa line. Orlando aviation authority officials point out that the airports in Tampa and Miami are constrained by development, but Orlando has room for growth at the airport and beyond. Nearby projects include the Medical City high-tech cluster with the Sanford-Burnham biotech firm, the University of Central Florida medical school, and children's and Veterans Affairs hospitals.The airport plans to combine four types of rail service on the same level in a single terminal: • Florida's proposed high-speed rail trains between the Orlando airport, Lakeland and Tampa; • A link to the 61-mile SunRail commuter line under development from DeLand through downtown Orlando to Poinciana; • A proposed light-rail line to International Drive; • A people mover to the current airline terminal. The systems would operate on adjacent tracks in what would become a five-level facility topped by a hotel. All of that would be in the middle of a new airline terminal complex in a pattern that mirrors the current facility to the north. "It would be a combination of rail systems and the air terminal unlike any place in the United States," said Tom Chandler, president and chief operating officer of SchenkelShultz Architecture, the Orlando aviation authority's consultant on the project. The proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando has generated optimism that Tampa and Orlando will become recognized as a "super region." As such, it would be expected to enhance economic development recruiting along with improving mobility for people doing business in the two cities and Lakeland. However, it also has generated concerns about competition. Jim Norman, a Hillsborough County commissioner who opposes rail initiatives, including light-rail lines in Tampa, said at a county transportation workshop last week that Orlando will gain a major advantage with the Orlando-to-Tampa line. "It sets up Orlando to be a hub," Norman said, especially if high-speed rail is extended to Miami. "I always fear that somehow high-speed rail would run from Orlando to the (Pinellas County) beaches and totally bypass our airport." Norman urged local transportation officials to seek money for mobility improvements that might be available in concert with high-speed rail funding. Orlando's high-speed rail station is planned for the airport, in part because a downtown corridor was thought to be too expensive. But Tampa's high-speed rail station would be in the heart of the city just south of the junction of Interstates 4 and 275. If funding plans materialize, transit advocates envision a combination high-speed and light-rail terminal along with the bus station at the adjacent Marion Transit Center. That would enable high-speed rail passengers to hop on the light-rail route that is planned from North Tampa through downtown to the West Shore area near the airport. "Light rail ultimately needs to come to the airport," said interim airport director John Wheat. "The issue with high-speed rail is something we need to continue to evaluate." Tampa's plans for how its high-speed rail complex might take shape are not as advanced as Orlando's, in part because what's envisioned for Tampa will depend on voter support in November for a 1-cent sales tax. That tax would fund light rail, bus improvements and nontransit highway and bikeway projects. At a rail briefing in Lakeland last week, Tampa Downtown Partnership President Christine Burdick cited a glitzy transportation center planned for Anaheim, Calif., by 2013 as an example of what Tampa might like to build. "A year ago, we were nowhere," Burdick said of the area's transit improvement plans. "Now we are getting so close." Both Tampa airport officials and officials of airlines serving Tampa International said it is premature to speculate how high-speed rail service between downtown Tampa and Orlando International might affect Tampa's airport service. Bob Montgomery, vice president of properties for Southwest Airlines, Tampa International's busiest carrier, said people are unlikely to make domestic travel decisions based on the availability of train services to an airport. High-speed rail access to Orlando, however, could affect Tampa's hopes to expand its international service. If Tampa cannot show sufficient demand for its own international flights, local passengers might be willing to use the rail connection to Orlando's more plentiful flights.
Reporter Ted Jackovics can be reached at (813) 259-7817.