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Threatened Tortoises Make Way for Central Florida Toll Road

Friday, January 04, 2013

A gopher tortoise captured from a burrow on the Wekiva Parkway site (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Construction of a 25-mile long toll road that will complete a beltway around Orlando is due to begin in February, but before building on the Wekiva Parkway can start, threatened gopher tortoises have to be moved out of the way.

The $1.7 billion  roadway project is being showcased as an example of careful transportation planning through an environmentally sensitive area. In addition to relocating threatened species, the project will include fencing and wildlife bridges to minimize the risk of animal- vehicle collisions, and much of the roadway will be elevated.

About 260 gopher tortoise burrows have been identified around the first few miles of the parkway slated for construction. Backhoes are used to scoop away the bulk of the dirt, taking care not to disturb the burrow itself. The tunnel is marked with a long PVC pipe so the backhoe operator doesn't dig too deep.

Biologist Joel Johnson (left) directs a tortoise excavation (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Every few feet the backhoe driver stops, and a biologist - like environmental consultant Joel Johnson - climbs into the crater to dig with a shovel

"When it gets down to the more intricate part of the excavation, you’ll dive in with an arm to pull the tortoise out," says Johnson.

"At some point it’s a personal touch. The iconic thing is this backhoe here digging these huge holes in the ground, but the action is really in a couple of feet, you know, five feet around that burrow."

Gopher tortoises are powerful diggers. A typical burrow could extend 30 feet lengthwise and slope down to a depth of 25 feet.

After digging down a few feet, the backhoe driver stops to allow some manual shovel work (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Getting the tortoises out isn't easy.

"They are surprisingly strong, like most crevice dwelling and burrowing animals, and once they get in there and decide they don't want to come out, it becomes a matter of leverage," says Johnson.

"We have ones that dig as fast as we are. We're chasing them," he says.

"And then sometimes they come up and they look like a zombie coming out of a grave, out of the dirt right after you take a swipe."

Two backhoes, two shovel wielding biologists... but no sign of a tortoise in this burrow (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The gopher tortoise is important to Florida's ecology because other animals use its burrow  to shelter and find food.

"They call [the gopher tortoise] a keystone species," says Mike Dinardo, the environmental coordinator for the project.

"That burrow provides refuge for others escaping fire, maintaining humidity and escaping heat."

The gopher tortoises' room mates  include the indigo snake, the gopher frog and the pine snake, as well as crickets and other insects.

Insects like this one share the gopher tortoise burrow (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The gopher relocation project started mid December, so far capturing more  than 40 tortoises. It could take another few weeks to dig up the remaining burrows.

Once the animals get a health check up they’ll be moved to a ranch in Okeechobee County, South Florida.

Environmental coordinator Mike Dinardo and the tortoise containers (photo by Matthew Peddie)

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Transportation Nation

Florida Congressman Mica Triumphs over Adams in "Most Negative Campaign Ever"

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

John Mica on primary night (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Veteran Florida congressman John Mica, the chairman of the House transportation committee, successfully fought off challenger Sandy Adams in Tuesday's Republican primary.

Mica says Adams put him through the most negative campaign ever. Reapportionment left Mica and Adams -- who currently represents Space Coast-based District 24 --  battling for the same seat.

“We tried to stay positive and respond where we could," said Mica, "but it was probably the most negative campaign I’ve ever had to experience and made it very unpleasant for me and my family.”

In the weeks leading to the election, Tea Party favorite Sandy Adams piled on the pressure, labeling Mica a big spending, establishment Republican -- as well as a cheerleader for President Obama.

(photo by Matthew Peddie)

But Mica won by a wide margin in the end, capturing 61% of the vote.

“I don’t think we’ve every mobilized anything like this in our lives," he told supporters at a sports bar just north of Orlando on Tuesday night. "It was a very difficult race. I could tell you that everything but the kitchen sink was thrown at us but I’d have to include the cabinets and all the appliances too.”

He said his victory showed "the heart and soul of the Republican Party is doing fine in Central Florida."

University of Central Florida Political Science Professor Aubrey Jewett said he wasn’t surprised at the vitriol in the race.

“Certainly it’s been negative, certainly it’s been personal, but that often happens in primaries where the candidates are very much alike on policy," said Jewett. "These two people are very conservative Republicans when it comes to policy.”

Jewett said what was unusual about the race was the fact that redistricting put two incumbent Republicans in the same district.

“It’s just virtually unheard of in the country that in a state where you gained two seats -- Florida now has two more congressional seats than it did before -- that you end up with two fairly high profile, popular Republicans in the same district. I mean it just doesn’t happen."

Jewett said the nature of the race forced Mica to downplay his record of helping to bring big projects to the district -- like the SunRail commuter train -- which are usually selling points for an incumbent.

(photo by Matthew Peddie)

Speaking at her campaign headquarters in Maitland, Sandy Adams said she was pleased the race brought the focus back to conservative values. She told Central Florida News 13 she's unsure of her political future.

"I’m a firm believer that when one door closes another one opens and I follow the path I’m led. So we’ll see.”

Mica, who heads the influential House Transportation Committee, says he wants to continue in that role -- but that’s up to House leadership.

He says he also plans to continue with a campaign to cut unnecessary spending in government.

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Transportation Nation

Florida Transportation Officials Plug Safety as Train Traffic Increases

Friday, February 24, 2012

(Orlando -- WMFE) With work beginning on SunRail, train traffic along the stretch of tracks running from Poinciana to Deland is expected to triple.

Rail safety experts worry that could lead to an increase in the number of motorists or pedestrians straying into the path of oncoming trains.

According to Federal Railroad Administration figures, rail crossing accidents have risen over the past 2 years after years of steady decline. In Florida in 2010, 67 people were involved in accidents at rail crossings, up from 48 the year before.

The Florida Department of Transportation says people will have to be extra vigilant once SunRail starts running.

“These railroad tracks, that had been active in the past, are going to be even more so, and these trains are going to be coming through quicker, they’re going to be quieter, and they just could sneak up on you," says Steve Olson from the Florida DOT.

So the agency is focusing on Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide rail safety education program.

Spokesman Jim Martin says the SunRail development is a good opportunity to get the safety message out.

"We have multiple lines here in Orange County, and in the Central Florida area, so my message is much broader than just the SunRail itself," he says.

And rail traffic could increase in Central Florida even after SunRail begins: the Florida DOT is commissioning two further studies looking into the potential for other commuter rail lines, one of them extending from Orlando to Eustis, and the other linking Orlando International Airport with the city.

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Start of the Showdown: Six SunRail Hearings Tuesday

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

(Orlando, Fla-WMFE) Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad is barreling through Central Florida today, holding six public meetings in cities along the route of the proposed SunRail commuter train.

Governor Rick Scott is expected to decide by Friday whether to approve the project. Communities along the rail line are holding their breath, hoping the project will revive their struggling economies, and some people have already invested money to back up those hopes.

Ryan Von Weller and his partners spent $3 million top buy four acres of land right next to wear the railway would pass in Longwood.

“I’ve been so excited and so disappointed so many times,” he says, “I’m truly excited about this, not only for my own business purposes, but I think it’s going to be a paradigm shift for the people of Orlando.”

Right now it's just a grassy lot with an old auto garage in it. If and when SunRail comes through, Von Weller will build a four-story mixed-use apartment building.

That's just one small example of the investments, which are both private and public, in cities along the proposed route.

Opponents including Tea Party protesters, say the plan is too expensive and plan to protest the public hearings.

State numbers obtained by WMFE show cities and counties along the 61-mile SunRail line will have to spend nearly $7.5 million a year by 2021 to keep the train operating.

Federal contributions are expected to cover $2 million of that, and riders are expected to generate $3 million in revenue.  That leaves a roughly $2 million deficit that will need to be covered.

Secretary Prasad will likely tell local leaders today that the state has no plans to help bridge that gap.

For more details on how the fight over SunRail has businesspeople, civic leaders and private citizens biting their nails and protesting in the streets, read the full story at WMFE.

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Transportation Nation

Pressure Mounting to Approve Sunrail in Central Florida

Thursday, June 16, 2011

 

(Orlando, Fla-WMFE)  Stakeholders across Central Florida are nervously waiting for Governor Rick Scott’s decision whether or not to approve the region’s 1.2 billion dollar commuter train project.

Scott says he will announce his decision at the end of June.

The Sunrail project has been in the works for years and looked to be running forward smoothly until the Governor put major contracts related to the commuter train on hold in January pending his approval.  But that didn’t stop communities from moving forward with their plans to develop storefronts and other transit related amenities near the proposed stations.

See the Sunrail route here.

Some communities have already paid their consultants, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars, and could risk spending the money for nothing if the Governor shuts down Sunrail.

According to Phil Laurien, the Director of the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, “ It’s a risk if they did not plan for Sunrail.  If we waste the asset of the Sunrail stop to have more high density, transit oriented, walkable development, mixed use where people can shop and live and work, those are tremendous assets.  Everywhere that transit oriented development has been done right it has stimulated the local economy.”

Laurien says he recently was visited by members of the German Parliament looking for places to invest in sustainable development in the US.  He says the Germans consider Central Florida to be a loser region without the commuter train project.

Recently US Congressman John Mica, who chairs the House Transportation Committee heard a presentation on a proposed rail line that would run adjacent to Sunrail from downtown Orlando northwards into rural Lake County, called the Orange Blossom Express.  State transportation officials have 13.8 million dollars set aside to improve rails on that line.  The Orange Blossom Express could be running within five years

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