Can Common Sense, and maybe Mickey, Save Orlando’s Transit Mess?


The week’s debate about high-speed rail has once again polarized our populace, inflamed irrationality, and sent everyone back to their familiar corners.  Little constructive debate is possible when major newspapers are flailing the governor for rejecting money and the seemingly global revolutionary fervor is gripping local citizens who rallied in protest Wednesday night around downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola.  None of this will do any good for the service workers trying to get to their jobs in the theme parks or for downtown cube dwellers streaming to scattered office parks. With or without light rail the city inches closer and closer to the traffic hell of Atlanta, or worse even, DC. After all, both cities already have large rail transit systems.

What will do some good is a creative discussion of some real change that can occur to improve our commute.

We must recognize that we are stuck with our cars.  They aren’t going away.  We can’t wish them away. We have to make them better fast, because with changes blowin’ in the wind and with oil jumping back up over $100 a barrel.

The high-speed bullet train – a sort of latter-day interstate highway program – sounded like a great idea at first, a welcome alternative to the ardor of air travel and the gas-sucking monotony of driving.  It has shortcomings, however, it will likely prove obscenely expensive, and once one gets to the destination, one is typically relegated to more driving.

Nor is this some form of effective industrial policy.  The things will be built overseas – Germany, Japan or most likely China –  a great jobs program for someone else.  And tourists, who vastly prefer the freedom of car rental and driving, aren’t likely to use it except as a novelty for one of their visits to our wonderful place.  Perhaps the bitterest part of the bullet train pill: it will indebt our children and grandchildren to pay off landowners giving up their land in eminent domain – which produces nothing – and the cost of complex machines made overseas. The bullet train ends up being a clumsy solution imposed from above, rather than a grassroots solution to our real problems. 

Any frequent driver on Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa can tell you there are four basic kinds of traffic: tourists in buses or cars; freight, in the form of tractor-trailers: business travelers (who need the flexibility of a car on the other end): and personal travelers.  Instead of targeting an expensive solution at just the smallest form of traffic, personal travel, a 4-part solution is suggested, all of which would add up to far less than $2 billion that minimally the high-speed line would have cost.

  1.  Trains can be good – for freight.  There are already freight lines running between Tampa and Orlando.  Getting the freight off of tractor-trailers and onto these freight lines, where it is vastly cheaper to move goods, should be a no-brainer for the state.  Use some of the DOT money to modernize freight depots along the pathway, incentivize freight customers to move their goods onto trains, and this will vastly improve the situation.
  2. Tourists can drive – at a price.  Our state should be treat itself with higher regard and also encourage a culture of sustainability for those visiting us.  Higher taxes on rental cars should be charged, and the taxes placed in an environmental fund to remove some of the unsightly development that has defaced our region, and return it to the special place it once was.
  3. Give business travelers an alternative.  If there were an affordable air shuttle between Tampa and Orlando, at the right price it would be full.  Little Embraers (made in Melbourne, by the way) taking off from FBOs at Orlando Executive Airport, Sanford Airport, and Orlando International Airport and landing in Tampa airfields would be worth $100 a seat, if the time/cost tradeoff were analyzed.  Ybor City for lunch, anyone?
  4. Give personal drivers an alternative.  For the cost of less than 50 miles of new road, a totally independent alternative to I-4 is waiting out there.  The first link of this road would connect Tampa’s Crosstown Express to Lakeland’s Western Beltway.  The next link of this road would connect the Western Beltway to the Greenway at Celebration.   Drivers will be able to go from downtown Tampa to downtown Orlando without their wheels touching I-4 even once.  Nice.

And now, for the big one.  Right smack in the middle of the white-hot I-4 corridor lays a large, private entity, Disney, has been operating a private, train-based mass transit system for the last 40 years.  High labor costs?  Yes.  Fossil fuel driven?  Yes.  This entity has been strangely silent over the entire debate.

If this entity were to wake up and seize the opportunity before it, one might see a true train that works.  First of all, the monorail was planned with some sense: it connects dense areas together.   If Disney were to offer to build, as a private development, extensions of its monorail reaching out to Tampa on one side and Orlando on the other, the air rights for this system could be along government-owned I-4 (no imminent domain costs).  This entity is also highly encouraged to charge market rate and to make a profitable venture out of operating this system. And the taxpayers would not be stuck with the bill.

A vision for transit between Tampa and Orlando needs to be truly holistic, taking into account all types of traffic connecting the two regions.  This vision also needs to be locally driven, taking advantage of local strengths and assets already in place.  The high speed bullet train does none of this.  Instead, a multi-faceted solution that provides flexibility at both ends, leverages our current strengths, and partners with the strongest player in the region has a chance of truly making a difference in the present tense and likely future budget climate  This is what sustainability is truly about, and is what our future generations deserve.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

Photo by Joe Penniston

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Comments on Rail

I am a supporter of passenger rail, and much of the proposed rail projects would be positive additions to many communities. I have, however, questioned many aspects of the proposals.

-Is "high speed" rail necessary?
I would argue that the United States needs rail - however it is unnecessary add to the cost by insisting on "high speed" rail. Fact of the matter is that with frequent stops occur - high-speed offers such a limited benefit when overall costs are included.

-Florida's Tampa to Orlando?
I fail to see the benefit from connecting Tampa to Orlando - especially at the proposed cost. The US doesn't need to connect Disney World to Tampa and Miami - it needs to connect St. Louis to Kansas City to Minneapolis to Detroit and Cleveland and Denver and Columbus, Etc.

A major problems arises with these two cities: they are both auto-centric. Meaning, you could train in-between each other, but upon arrival, you'd have to rent a car. If you have to rent a car upon arrival, why bother having the added financial burden of the train?

Mass Slow Transit at Disney

Disney would be the last private entity I'd want mucking about with public transit. I recently took my first trip to Disney World as an adult, and although I left with a sense that inside the walls of each individual theme park or resort Disney can create magic, once you've stepped foot outside those areas, into the logistics of moving guests to-and-fro, they are as lacking as any moderate sized town.

The monorail really serves 2 major destinations and a main parking lot (Magic Kingdom, Epcot) out of the 7 major sites on the campus (MK, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, MGM, 2 water parks and Downtown Disney) and only directly 3 of the roughly 30 on campus hotels. The reminder is down to buses or private cars which contend with a rather sprawled network of roads, with nothing situated particularly close to each other, especially considering the autonomy the corporation should have in its campus layout. It's almost as if having to move people around outside of the parks was an after though.

Disney also has a solution for transporting people from Orlando International to the park with buses. I'm not sure how great its regional transportation needs really are? The I-4 Tampa-Orlando corridor wouldn't seem to be a major tourist artery when compared with the I-95/I-4 to Disney connection or the I-75/Florida Turnpike connection.

DIsney's monorail never expanded with the park

I think its telling that they never bothered to expand the monorail system much from the original set up they started the park with in the early 70's. The cost of expanding and running it must be so much more then the crappy buses. Even with the "green" nonsense that so many corporations have fallen for, they have made no plans to change the transportation setup they have.

Not far enough for freight rail

You wrote:

Trains can be good – for freight. There are already freight lines running between Tampa and Orlando. Getting the freight off of tractor-trailers and onto these freight lines, where it is vastly cheaper to move goods, should be a no-brainer for the state. Use some of the DOT money to modernize freight depots along the pathway, incentivize freight customers to move their goods onto trains, and this will vastly improve the situation.

I agree that railroads can carry freight very effectively.

But it's only about 72 miles (117 km) from Tampa to Walt Disney World, mostly by way of I-4 and only 85 miles (137 km) from Tampa to Orlando.

That's not nearly far enough to make it cost-effective to carry most forms of freight on a train. Most papers I have read suggest much longer distances, say 250 miles (400 km) are needed for carriage by train to become cost-effective (at least with most commodities - Montgomery County, Maryland's government uses CSX to haul trash 17 miles (27 km) (!) from a central transfer station at Shady Grove to a waste-to-energy plant at Dickerson - details here).