Year in Review Florida: Rail Blooms, Shuttles Retire, Mica Moves on

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(photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The top transportation stories from WMFE in Central Florida show the resilient support for ambitious new rail projects, and for car culture. Plus, stunning pictures of huge spacecraft are a big hit.

New Plans Sprout in Wake of Scuttled High-Speed Rail

While Central Florida's SunRail commuter train chugged towards a goal of beginning service by 2014, private rail companies also laid out ambitious plans for new passenger services in Florida.

Florida East Coast Industries floated plans for a regular train between Miami and Orlando International Airport. FECI is still working to get rights of way for the final leg of the service, dubbed All Aboard Florida, which it aims to have rolling by 2015. The company says no public funding will be needed to pay the estimated $1 billion to get the service up and running. And once it starts they say it will be a viable alternative for road weary business commuters between South and Central Florida, as well as tourists who don't want to hop in a plane for the 200 mile trip.

Another company is also pushing plans for a high tech elevated monorail -- a magnetically levitating train to run from Orlando International Airport to the Orange County Convention Center. Despite some local skepticism and past struggles to make his maglev rail a reality, American MagLev Technology chief executive Tony Morris appears to have won over the Orlando area transportation planning agency, which has given AMT the go-ahead to move forward with its plan.

Sunrail is also stirring talk of a cycling renaissance in Central Florida, with bike share part of the mix.


But Cars Still Rule the Roads ... 

In the meantime the automobile still rules the road in Orlando- which can pose problems for seniors who've given up their car keys. Urban planners are optimistic about the train's potential to spark a rethink about where people live and how they commute in Central Florida.

For motorists traveling through the Orlando metro area a choice often presents itself: pay to use toll roads and (theoretically) reach the destination quicker, or brave the traffic and lights and save on tolls. WMFE put the theory to the test in a race to the airport. (Ed note: for the full fun of this story, listen to the audio version)


Florida Loses a Key Political Post

Orlando political heavyweight John Mica, the chair of the U.S. House Transportation Committee staved off a challenge from Tea Party favorite Sandy Adams in a tough primary election battle, then cruised to victory against his Democrat rival in November. After indicating he'd seek a term-limit waiver to stay on as chair of the House Transportation Committee, Mica relinquished his grasp on the post, endorsing fellow Republican Bill Shuster from Pennsylvania for the spot. Mica hasn't said what other committees he might be in line for.


Space Travel Enters a New Era

The Mars rover sent back stunning high-res images from of the red planet, marking a new highpoint of excitement in space exploration. But here on earth, the Kennedy Space Center was moving on and bidding farewell to the last generation of spacecraft. NASA retired its shuttle fleet. Endeavour flew to California, Discovery piggy backed up to Washington DC and Atlantis rolled down the road to the nearby visitor center. Meanwhile other equipment at Kennedy Space Center is getting an overhaul for a new era of deep space exploration.

NASA may have closed down its shuttle program, but commercial companies are ramping up efforts to replace the iconic orbiters. Space Exploration Technologies celebrated a successful demonstration flight of its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station- the first commercial craft to do so- followed a few months later by the first contracted supply mission to the orbiting outpost. Engineers at the California based SpaceX are working to figure out what caused one of the engines to shut down on the launch, but the capsule still made it to the ISS with cargo intact- including ice cream.


BONUS STORY: While the nation debated the tragic death of a Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL WMFE  explored the backdrop of where the shooting took place.