Monday, May 13, 2013
"We can’t depend on the old ways of doing things," says Harry Barley, the executive director of Central Florida’s regional transportation planning agency Metroplan Orlando.
"The old ways have typically been simply building wider roads and newer roads. We’ve got to look for more efficient ways of moving people." Florida may be known for aborting a high-speed rail project in 2011, but come 2014 and beyond, it may be a state of rail investment.
Thursday, May 02, 2013
International visitors flying into Orlando no longer have to fill out a paper I-94 arrival form.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
The former chair of the House Transportation Committee supports expanding the airport in his home district, but opposition is coming from an unexpected corner: airlines. Congressman John Mica (R-Fla.) speaks with WMFE's Matthew Peddie about an airport as an engine of regional growth.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Orlando's transportation planning agency says the city could see a bike sharing system up and running by next spring, in time for Central Florida's SunRail commuter train, a program we reported on last fall. On Wednesday Metroplan Orlando's bike share working group got a look at bikes produced by one of the companies angling for a toe hold in Central Florida.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Budget cuts brought about by sequestration could force the closure of more than 100 air traffic control facilities -- including control towers at smaller airports across the US.
Kissimmee Gateway Airport, which is just outside of Orlando, is on the list of towers which could be shut down April 7th. City leaders say that would put the brakes on one of the main economic drivers in the area.
“It’s an economic engine, not only necessarily because of what happens on the field, but also what happens adjacent to it," says Mayor Jim Swan. He says the economic impact of the airport is estimated around $100 million a year. Swan says losing the tower will make it tough to market a $3.2 million dollar business airpark which is being built with state and local funds.
A large part of the airport’s traffic includes business jets bringing people to functions at nearby Disney World and conventions on Orlando's International Drive.
Last year the airport saw 129,000 departures and landings from a mix of business jets, and propeller planes. Aviation director Terry Lloyd says losing the control tower- which is operated under a contract with the Federal Aviation Administration- could decrease flights to under 100,000 a year.
"I think it's something that we have a lot of dread [about], and there are a lot of unknowns," he says.
He says having a tower to help manage traffic makes Kissimmee a more attractive destination for business jets.
"The corporate traffic- that's kind of on the top of their checklist, if there's an airport with a tower, that's where they go," he says. "And then if there's not a tower they make a decision- is it important enough for us to go in there, and a lot of it's driven by the aircraft insurance companies."
Aircraft operators also have fuel agreements at airports - like Kissimmee- that guarantee the price of aviation fuel if they land there. Lloyd says those agreements could also be jeopardized by the loss of the tower.
Other airport users say they're concerned about safety. John Calla, vice president of operations for Italico Aviation-- a company that plans to import and assemble light sport aircraft at Kissimmee -- says he's worried about the mix of traffic if there's no tower. "You see the jets that take off here and the speed they operate," says Calla. "You get a smaller aircraft that's used to flying about 60 miles per hour, integrating with something of that size, and you could get some conflicts.
Calla says the tower is important to separate and sequence the arrival and departure of planes. "They know the speed of the aircraft and they know how much to sequence it so traffic flow is not impaired. It also improves the safety as well."
Florida Congressman Alan Grayson has written to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the FAA urging them to consider the impact of closing the tower.
Friday, March 08, 2013
"We love Orlando, we love Mickey Mouse, we love Walt Disney, Universal, the Church Street Facilities, that great mall -- Millenia Mall, but dadgum that I-4, that's a headache," Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad told journalists in Orlando this week.
"We're going to fix that headache."
The Florida DOT is moving ahead with plans for the I-4 Ultimate project- a $2.1 billion dollar fix for I-4. The state's prescription includes adding toll lanes to a 21-mile stretch of the interstate running through the heart of Orlando. The department aims to begin construction in 2015 and complete it by 202o.
Prasad said four so-called "managed lanes" would be added to the interstate, leaving six lanes toll free. Tolls would be higher during heavy congestion periods and lower when traffic is light.
“We use tolls to only keep a certain number of people in the managed lanes so we can keep them going at 50 miles an hour," he said. "Say if I-4's ‘general purpose’ lanes – the toll-free lanes – are congested and you only charge a quarter, everybody’s going to be on it, and now you got another two lanes of gridlock. So what you do is you use tolls as a way to manage capacity coming in to the express lane.”
Prasad conceded there is a downside to building the extra lanes.
"There's going to be inconvenience- you're talking about $2 billion worth of work in a very constrained corridor- albeit a long corridor- getting done over five years. It's a lot of work."
However, Prasad said a similar $1.3 billion expansion project is successfully underway on South Florida's I-595. He said travel times along that stretch of road-- roughly 10 miles -- have only increased by an average of five minutes because of construction.
The state is putting up about half the $2.1 billion dollar cost of the I-4 Ultimate project and courting private investment to foot the remainder of the bill. Under a public-private partnership agreement with the state, private firms would also maintain and operate the toll lanes for a fixed length of time.
Prasad said the public private partnership allows Florida to take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs.
"What the state gets is delivering a project 20 years in advance," he said.
"If we were to do this project on a regular pay-go mechanism, we would be building it for the next 20 or 25 years and chasing congestion like we always do."
Gregg Logan, a managing director at the real estate advisory firm RCLCO's Orlando office, says the I-4 upgrade will help the local economy.
"You don’t want businesses that are here already and thinking about expanding saying, 'Gee, do I want to stay here and deal with this gridlock'- or companies that might be thinking about coming and bringing jobs. We want them to be looking at [Orlando] as a good place to invest because we have our act together."
And he says Florida has to look for new ways to fund infrastructure - with a combination of local government funding, private investment and user fees- because federal government dollars are limited.
"Like it or not that seems to be a collective decision we’ve made as a society for that’s how we’re going to fund infrastructure," says Logan, who adds he's worried the US is falling behind other countries in transportation infrastructure.
"When you look around the world right now and you look at where big rail projects and transit projects are being done, you find that’s in China Brazil, the Middle East," says Logan.
"We’ve sort of forgotten that part of what has made us great and enabled us to have the growing economy we have is that we made these investments in infrastructure. Now we’ve taken that for granted."
The Florida DOT is promoting I-4's managed toll lanes as one part of a multi-modal transport system that could also include bus rapid transit to complement Central Florida's SunRail commuter train. SunRail is slated to begin service in 2014, while private rail companies are also talking about an Orlando to Miami service and a maglev rail linking Orlando International Airport with the Orange County Convention Center.
Eric Dumbaugh, the director of Florida Atlantic University's School of Urban and Regional Planning, supports the addition of managed lanes to I-4. The challenge for Florida, he says, is to develop viable alternatives to driving.
"Our transit system is inadequate in all of our metropolitan areas: it doesn’t take us where we need to go, our development doesn’t link up to it as well as it should, so we’re trapped in our cars."
But Dumbaugh says he's optimistic about Florida's ability to develop a truly comprehensive transportation system, because a new generation is now demanding alternatives to the car.
"You survey millennials- they don’t want to drive," says Dumbaugh, who highlights the efforts of a group of Florida Atlantic University students to set up a transit themed installation in Miami this weekend.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
For years, Orlando has ranked among the most dangerous metro areas for pedestrians in the nation, with roughly two injuries per day and one fatality a week. Now a coalition of pedestrian advocates, law enforcement, local government and health agencies is trying to change that, with a program called Best Foot Forward. And eight months after the program launched, there are some signs of improvement.
Transportation experts say there are three steps needed to make the roads safer for pedestrians: education, enforcement and engineering. Orlando is trying all three, but it still has a long way to go to change the culture for people on foot.
“It’s pretty abominable,” says Bill Carpenter, a volunteer collecting data for the Best Foot Forward Program. He says pedestrians haven’t had much of a voice in Central Florida until now.
Carpenter is monitoring how drivers behave at crosswalks. A pickup truck approaches the intersection of Rollins street and Camden road in Winter Park. Carpenter steps cautiously into the road stretching out one hand to point down at the crosswalk. The driver doesn’t stop.
“Motorists reactions run the gamut," says Carpenter. "There’s some that begrudgingly stop, then others that wave back at you and say thanks for waiting there for me and go on.”
This dangerous dance is repeated daily all over the city by other pedestrians.
In East Orlando, a restaurant worker called Tony makes his way to a bus stop on South Semoran Boulevard, near Curry Ford Road.
“This intersection here, it’s crazy," says Tony. He says drivers aren't courteous. "No. They’d rather run you over.”
Badly injured pedestrians go to the Orlando Regional Medical Center, which is part of the Best Foot Forward Coalition. Last year doctors at the center treated over 400 patients who’d been hit by cars.
But there are signs the education campaign is starting to have an effect, says project manager Brad Kuhn.
“On those roads at 35 miles an hour and less, we’ve been able to take the yield rate from about one in eleven to approaching one in three.”
That means at some of the 18 crosswalks being monitored in Orlando and Orange county, more drivers are yielding now for pedestrians than they were six months ago.
Kuhn’s organization, Bike Walk Central Florida, has reached out to 88,000 households to promote pedestrian safety, and 11 Orange County elementary schools are teaching a pedestrian safety syllabus. But, says Kuhn, high-speed roads are still a problem.
“By the time you see the pedestrian, you’re already past them," he says, "which is unfortunate, because on a 40-mile-an-hour road, your chance of survival if you get hit is 15 per cent.”
Enforcement is used to back up the education campaign. Last year police and sheriff’s officers handed out more than 1,200 tickets and arrested 20 drivers for failing to yield at crosswalks.
Orlando Police sergeant Jerry Goglas says some drivers try to blame the pedestrian. “They say: “did you see the pedestrian jaywalking, why is the pedestrian in the road?” Some of them are not understanding once a pedestrian is in a marked crosswalk the driver has to yield.”
Best Foot Forward is trying out low-cost engineering like signs and road markings-- but the coalition is also interested in something called the Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon.
It’s a small box mounted on a pole at a crosswalk. When activated, a bright LED light flashes towards the eyes of approaching drivers, signaling them to stop. In St. Petersburg, on the other side of the state, these beacons have helped cut the pedestrian accident rate in half over the last ten years.
Pedestrian advocate Bill Carpenter thinks these beacons could help in Orlando, but he says changing drivers attitudes is a long term project. “I’d hate to venture a guess, but it’s going to take longer than six or 12 months. It’s going to take a lot.”
The Florida Department of Transportation is also engaged around the state trying to make the roads safer and it’s rolling out a pedestrian awareness campaign focusing on ten counties with high pedestrian crash rates. In the meantime, Best Foot Forward hopes its early success will eventually translate into fewer pedestrians winding up in hospital.
Monday, December 17, 2012
A private company aiming to build a 40-mile long, $800 million dollar magnetic levitation rail line through Orlando has the green light to move forward with its plan.
American Maglev Technology Inc. says the monorail would be a first for the U.S.
The transportation planning agency Metroplan Orlando gave its conditional approval to phase one of the plan last week -- a 15-mile elevated line connecting Orlando International Airport and the Orange County Convention Center.
The first phase would cost $315 million. MetroPlan's approval clears the way for the Florida Department of Transportation to solicit bids for use of the public right of way along the proposed route.
Tony Morris of American Maglev Technology Inc (AMT) says no public money would be needed to fund the project. According to AMT presentation materials, the company's system would cost $20 million per mile to build, compared to $70 million for other maglev systems.
MetroPlan wants a technical assessment to ensure the technology is safe, and it wants a request for proposals issued to see if there are competing plans before proceeding further.
MetroPlan executive director Harry Barley says the Florida Department of Transportation will carry out the technical assessment.
"This is a new technology, there is a test track and the [AMT] team has already gone through a great deal of testing on their own," says Barley. "But we feel there needs to be some additional work to review what they've done and perhaps build upon that before we're really confident the technology is appropriate."
Lease agreements also need to be negotiated to acquire public right of ways for the project.
Barley says those details will have to be worked out amongst the various agencies, including the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, the Orange County Expressway Authority, Orange County and the City of Orlando.
"The step that was taken with all those people present and voting to move ahead, I think reflects the collaborative nature on which this project can move forward."
AMT chief executive Tony Morris began working on a magnetic levitation rail system in Volusia County in the 1990s-- but that project didn't progress beyond the test phase.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Thursday morning, 9am: two law-abiding drivers, two routes to the airport, one winner.
WMFE reporter Matthew Peddie and news director Mark Simpson wanted to figure out the fastest route the airport from downtown Orlando. In a thoroughly unscientific experiment, they put two kinds of roads to the test. The toll road to the airport tacks on distance but promises a speedier ride. Surface roads are free and more direct -- but are studded with traffic lights.
Whose route was victorious? Listen to the radio story, below.
Friday, November 09, 2012
(Orlando, Fla. -- WMFE) John Mica, the chair of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, joined with Florida Governor Rick Scott and other business leaders and elected officials near Winter Haven Thursday, for the symbolic groundbreaking of a new intermodal rail terminal.
Before grabbing one of the gold painted shovels, Mica, a republican from Winter Park, Fla. praised the governor for his business savvy and leadership in supporting the project, which will serve as a distribution hub for trains and trucks delivering cargo throughout Florida. The project came about after rail company CSX reroute freight traffic from 62 miles of track to accommodate the SunRail commuter train.
"We are very fortunate to have Governor Scott with his business background at this time and his vision for transportation and infrastructure," said Mica.
"You cannot build this state or this community or projects like this without people like Governor Scott."
Mica and Scott have not always seen eye to eye on big transportation projects in Florida, notably on the failed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, which the Governor nixed early in 2011 by rejecting $2.4 billion dollars in Federal stimulus money. At the time Mica panned the Governor's decision, labeling it a setback for the state's transportation, economic development and tourism.
While the high-speed rail plans collapsed, there's evidence to suggest Mica may have -indirectly- helped Central Florida's SunRail Commuter train avoid a similar fate during his tenure as chair of the house transportation and infrastructure committee.
Looking ahead to a second Obama administration, Mica said he hopes the president will work better with Congress on transportation issues this time around. "They've been absent without leave," said Mica. "I’m hoping that their second time around they’ll be more cooperative."
Advocates for increased transportation and infrastructure spending have lauded President Obama's stimulus plan and his advocacy of a national rail network.
Mica, who comfortably staved off a Democratic challenger to retain his seat in Florida's U.S. House District 7 Tuesday, is due to be termed out of his role as chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. However he says he'd like to hang onto the position if possible.
“Oh we’ll see," he said. "It depends on whether they grant waivers or not, and that’s yet to be decided.”
"I’ve been honored to chair for the last 2 years, ranking for four years, chaired a sub committee for six years, and I intend to be a leader in whatever capacity my colleagues choose,” said Mica, who's also in line for other potential committee chairmanships.
"But I’m not moving from transportation even if I took another slot,” said Mica, who added he intends to be in a key position to make decisions on transportation policy.
Republican Congressman Bill Shuster of Penn. has already expressed an interest in the committee chair position.
Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad was also pondering the implications of the second Obama term. Prasad said it's important that there's leadership at the Federal level and that members of congress can work together to craft a long term highway transportation bill.
"I just hope we can get to a deal," said Prasad.
"The last deal was only two years, and partly because I think folks in congress wanted to get past this election... Now that the election's over, let’s not wait another two years to get another two year bill, let’s work next year and have a long term bill that creates a transportation vision for the country.”
Historically transportation funding bills were non-partisan bills approved for six years at a time to facilitate planning of longer term projects. For more on how that changed this Congress, read our previous coverage.
Monday, October 01, 2012
Electric vehicle charging stations are springing up all over Florida -- and a lot of them are concentrated around Orlando, which has more than 150 stations within a 70-mile radius. But uptake in central Florida has been ... slow.
The Orlando Utilities Commission, which has installed 78 charging stations around the city, estimates there are about 700 electric vehicles currently on the road in Orlando. That's a tiny percentage of the 915,960 cars and pickup trucks registered in Orange County, which encompasses most of the Orlando metropolitan area.
But alternative fuel advocates are hopeful the vehicles will eventually catch on in the Sunshine State. Florida's electric vehicle infrastructure is growing quickly, and the U.S. Department of Energy lists 319 public charging stations across the state, provided with funding from federal stimulus money.
Orlando resident Mark Thomasen has been an advocate for electric vehicles in the city since 2008. He worked for a company that installed many of the charging stations and now writes an EV blog. He says it's been a challenge to build up acceptance of electric vehicles in the area. "There's not as much of a green movement in central Florida, and in Florida versus say Washington, or Oregon or Colorado."
Motorists might also balk at the upfront price. Chevrolet's plug-in electric-gasoline hybrid Volt sedan has a list price of $39,145, while Nissan's all-electric Leaf, has a base price of $35,000. Even with the $7,500 federal tax rebate, the cars are comparatively expensive.
But Thomasen is confident EVs will catch on in Florida. He says they don't face some of the challenges of hydrogen, such as how to generate and store the gas, as well as the need to dvelop a high capacity, durable and inexpensive fuel cell. And he says even if drivers aren't worried about the environmental cost of gasoline, EVs should appeal to people who don't want to rely on foreign oil.
"Over here, what matters to people is energy independence," he says. "People don't realize how much fuel we use and how little we have within our border. So by moving to an electric car and getting off of that, we go to a different fuel source."
And Thomasen says electric vehicles at least have the infrastructure to support them, unlike hydrogen fuel cars.
Seven years ago there was a big push to build a hydrogen fuel infrastructure in California and in Florida. In 2005, Florida Governor Jeb Bush broke ground on the state's first hydrogen fueling station in Orlando. “Florida is spurring investment in the development and use of pollution-free hydrogen technology,” said Gov. Bush. The new station was to be part of a "hydrogen hub" in central Florida, and the first of a series of stations fueling a fleet of clean energy vehicles.
After Jeb Bush left office, Florida's new governor Charlie Crist grabbed the renewable fuel baton. He cut the ribbon on the station in May 2007, and touted it as a way to wean the nation off foreign oil. A fleet of minibuses operated by the Orange County convention center was adapted to run on hydrogen supplied by the station. Progress Energy, one of the partners in the project, opened a second refueling station near Oviedo as part of a nationwide demonstration project on fuel cell vehicles, led by the US Department of Energy. Eventually though, Florida's hydrogen highway evaporated. After two years and 3,200 fill-ups, the two hydrogen refueling stations shut down and the pilot program finished.
James Fenton, who directs the Florida Solar Energy Center, a research facility at the University of Central Florida, says hydrogen still has a place in the future of alternative fuels in Florida. But he says it's more likely to be used in fuel cells in electric vehicles rather than powering internal combustion engines. "Eventually we'll get to the point when all the battery-powered electric cars will have fuel cell range extenders," says Fenton. "You'll have electric cars with batteries for short trips because the electron out of the wall is dirt cheap, then you'll electrolyze water somewhere else, fill your car with hydrogen and extend the range."
And while electric vehicles aren't yet a common sight on central Florida roads, Fenton says he's upbeat about their future because mile for mile, electricity out of the wall is cheaper than gasoline. But he says there are still some obstacles to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
"We don't have a hydrogen infrastructure," says Fenton. "That's the kicker."
Friday, September 21, 2012
(Orlando, Fla. -- WMFE) The train could bring in the bikes. The regional transportation planning agency MetroPlan Orlando is considering starting a bike share program to roll out alongside the SunRail train service under construction. The commuter train line is seen as a catalyst for cycling, with the potential to locate bike share kiosks around the stations along the 61 mile rail line. Other locations in consideration for bike share programs include the University of Central Florida and International Drive in Orlando.
Some cities like Orlando and Winter Park, are already researching bike sharing. But Mighk (pronounced Mike) Wilson, who leads the MetroPlan bike share working group, says it makes more sense to have a region wide system.
“You don’t want to have the user sign up for a program, let’s say in the city of Orlando, and then go sign up for another program maybe in Altamonte, and then have all that redundancy,” he says.
"Instead they should be able to hop on a bike anywhere in the Central Florida area, all under the same membership and fee structure."
The working group held its first meeting Wednesday.
Wilson says he doesn't know if bike share will be up and running in Central Florida by the time SunRail starts in 2014. "What we haven't really determined yet is, are we going to move forward with a bike share program," he says. "We still need to answer a number of questions before we make that commitment." Wilson says one of the first steps will be to put out a Request For Information from bike share companies.
Orlando already put out its own RFI, and three companies responded: Wisconsin based B-Cycle; Deco Bike, which has programs in South Florida and New York; and the Southern California based Bike Nation.
Winter Park Sustainability coordinator Tim Maslow says setting up a region-wide bike share program could take longer than it would for an individual city- but he's willing to wait.
"I think the investment in time will pay off in the end," he says. "Maybe we could roll it out in three to six months, but I think it would be worse if we tried to expedite it on our own and then people who were traveling to and from Winter Park, Orlando and surrounding areas were using different systems and they had to get different memberships."
The other benefit of setting up a bigger system is a bigger funding pool. "If it was just city-wide, we would have to foot the bill not only just for bicycles and the stations, which could be a pretty hefty investment, but the city would have to assume the risk and liability and operation of that system," Maslow says. "I'm not sure we have the resources or the staff time."
Maslow says he's still hopeful bike sharing can roll out at the same time as SunRail. He says Winter Park is also making plans to accommodate private bike owners, and the city is in talks with the architects designing the new train station about a potential covered bike storage facility near the station.
A hundred miles west of Orlando, in St. Petersburg, plans are also underway for bike sharing. MyBike founder Andrew Blikken aims to use a system developed by the New York based company SoBi., which does away with the need for kiosks. The bikes include an on-board computer and can be locked up anywhere: riders can use their smartphones to locate a bike, unlock it and pay for its use.
MyBike was slated to launch in July with 500 bicycles, but Blikken says he's still trying to raise money for the program.
"There is not a bank on the planet that considers bikes collateral," he says.
"So that means debt financing is basically not possible for something like this. However, equity financing is. We have found a number of people who are very interested in putting down smaller amounts. We have a quarter million dollars towards our million dollar goal in our subscription agreement so far."
Blikken says he's looking for a major sponsor to get myBike off the ground. He says once he gets the capital it will be six months at least before his program will be operational.
Meanwhile in Orlando, another start up company is trying to generate interest in a bike share program using the same technology.
SunCycles founder Peter Martinez says he's in talks with SoBi, and he's also looking for people to invest in his company.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
(Nicole Creston, WMFE -- Orlando, Fla.) The small town of Eatonville, Fla. just north of Orlando is best known for being the oldest incorporated African-American municipality in the United States. It is also known for being home to historical landmarks like the first Central Florida school for African-Americans, and to notable figures like writer Zora Neale Hurston.
This month, the town celebrated its 125th anniversary by cutting the ribbon on the crown jewel of a multi-year beautification project: an archway visible from Interstate 4. The stately structure welcomes visitors to town and gives Eatonville a new sense of identity. It could be the first step in turning the town into a destination for historic tourism.
Maye St. Julien, Chair of the Eatonville Historic Preservation Board, explains the significance of the year 1887 for Eatonville, and why it’s being recognized 125 years later. “What we celebrate is the actual signing of the articles of incorporation making it an official town recognized by the state.”
The town was actually founded in 1881 by a freed slave named Joe Clark, says St. Julien. She says since African-Americans could only buy individual plots of land back then – enough for one house – Clark sought the help of his boss, citrus industry entrepreneur and retired military captain Josiah Eaton.
“The town is named for Mr. Eaton because he was the major contributor and the major supporter of Joe Clark,” says St. Julien. “And he advertised, and you can see on the newspaper back in 1880s, for people of color to come to Eatonville and own your own land, and you could purchase a lot for $35, or $50 if you needed credit. And that’s how this town was made.”
Six years later, in 1887, men from 27 of Eatonville’s 29 families incorporated the town.
“There were 29, but there was a bit of intimidation on the part of the whites when it was learned that the blacks had acquired this much land,” explains St. Julien. “So, two of them became a little concerned and chose not to participate in that, but thank goodness and God bless the 27 who did,” says St. Julien.
Eatonville’s historic main street is East Kennedy Boulevard. From its intersection with I-4, the town’s business district stretches east about five blocks and the whole strip has been completely refurbished. The road has been repaved and repainted, brick pedestrian walkways have been added, and sidewalks are bristling with Florida-friendly flowers and foliage.
Eatonville Mayor Bruce Mount can’t hide his enthusiasm about the changes that district has seen over the past few years. “If you haven’t been down Kennedy Boulevard lately, you will not know Kennedy Boulevard,” says Mount.
Famous African-American institutions including the Hungerford Normal and Industrial School and figures like Hurston shared addresses along the storied piece of pavement.
And now, Eatonville is getting the kind of gateway its leaders say it deserves. A new iron archway mounted on brick columns stretches across Kennedy, facing I-4. A sign at the top extends a welcome to Eatonville and displays information about the historic town and its 125th anniversary. Mount says the whole structure lights up at night.
“It has a clock on it and it also has some nice plaques on it,” Mount adds. “The Zora Neale Hurston plaque is there, the school [plaque] is there, so that is a very nice theme to the streetscape… The citizens are proud. I’m getting calls all the time.”
The vast majority of those calls about Kennedy’s overhaul are positive, he says.
And so is most of the conversation down the street during a recent lunchtime rush at Vonya’s Southern Cooking Café on Kennedy. The customers were buzzing about Eatonville’s makeover.
“Huge difference already,” says nine-year Eatonville resident Darrius Gallagher. “It should be very beautiful. It’s a very historic town.”
Esther Critton has lived in Eatonville all of her nineteen years. “With them doing the construction, it gives the town a better look and then makes the people feel good, makes the town run smoother,” she says. “So, we’re coming a long way.”
In August 2012, 125 years after the 27 men signed the articles of incorporation for Eatonville, Mayor Mount helped honor those men by cutting the ribbon on the gateway that commemorates the town’s anniversary. The ribbon stretched the full five blocks of the business district, wrapping around the smaller brick columns that now mark the east end of Eatonville on Kennedy.
Those columns, although constructed as part of the same project as the gateway, do not have an arch to support. That seems to be a bit of a problem for one nearby business owner - former Eatonville Mayor Abraham Gordon Junior.
Gordon owns the Be Back Fish House, a seafood restaurant and the business closest to those columns. He had a different vision for his end of the street, including a sign identifying the town and, ideally, an archway like the one close to I-4.
“It should’ve been the same height that is down on that end,” says Gordon, “and just had across ‘Welcome to Eatonville’ and that would’ve made it somewhat complete.”Gordon also says the placement of the columns so near his restaurant used up space he was hoping he could dedicate to his customers.
“There’s parking in front of every business in the town of Eatonville,” explains Gordon. “There’s parking in places where there’s no business in the town of Eatonville. And no parking in front of this place, where there is business.”
Instead, he points out, there’s a proliferation of that Florida-friendly foliage, which is mean to enhance the look of the columns but winds up partially obscuring his restaurant from view.
But, he adds, he’s seen the changes Eatonville has undergone since he first arrived in the early 1950s, and he doesn’t want to stand in the way of the town’s evolution. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, and we don’t need any more problems.”
He says Eatonville has come a very long way from the cluster of houses surrounded by dirt roads and strained wastewater systems he first saw, and overall he says the town’s new look is “very nice.”
Eatonville Public Works Director Abraham Canady says, “the construction is a result of a federal grant that was spearheaded by Congresswoman Corrine Brown." She adds, "the grant went through the Federal Highway Administration to Florida Department of Transportation.”
Canady says the current construction value of the project is about $1.4 million, and he thinks it’s worth every penny, especially the west end gateway that draws welcome attention to the town.
And that’s just the beginning, according to Mayor Mount. There are more changes coming, starting with plans for more development near the new gateway.
“We want it to be mixed use – amphitheaters, the eateries, the hotels,” he says. “That’s what we want. We want Eatonville, when we’re talking about the future, to be a tourist destination. And because people say, ‘What do you have to sell, what do people have to sell?’ Our history.”
He says Eatonville could capitalize on “historical tourism” and become a destination for visitors looking for a different type of Orlando vacation than the theme parks offer.
Mount says that idea is still in the early stages. Next step – a visioning meeting with the town council as Eatonville continues to evolve…and celebrate its anniversary throughout the year.
Click here to listen to Nicole Creston's report on Eatonville at WMFE.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Developers are building apartments along Florida’s new commuter rail line -- but if SunRail isn't reliable, both the idea of transit-oriented development -- not to mention SunRail -- could flop.
The SunRail tracks run straight through Florida Hospital’s campus on North Orange Ave. When the commuter train starts in 2014 it will be an important part of the hospital’s plans for a health village, which will include a mix of apartments, shops and businesses clustered around the yet-to-be built rail station.
Developer Craig Ustler says the project will transform the surrounding neighborhood.
“It would look like a lot of people walking, a pedestrian friendly environment, and maybe an evolution to a place where the car doesn’t win all the time.”
Ustler is counting on residents for a 250 apartment, $38 million complex he’s building a few blocks from the hospital.
The idea behind transit-oriented development (TOD) is to create pedestrian- friendly environments with access to transportation alternatives to the car. Local officials, like Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, are excited about its potential.
“Transit-oriented development is popping up all around these stations, giving us new places to work, live and play," said Dyer when SunRail got the final go-ahead a year ago.
"New companies moving in, new jobs being created. People saving money because they don’t have to use their car. People saving time because they’re not stuck on I-4.”
With ten thousand hospital employees and about three thousand students at the College of Health Sciences, all of them potential rail passengers, shoppers or tenants, Florida Hospital is ripe for TOD.
To make it work, though, the rail has to run often and on time. And right now SunRail won’t run on weekends.
Gregg Logan, managing director of the Orlando real estate advisory services firm RCLCO, says that could be a problem.
“If it’s not convenient, then people won’t use it and that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘see, we shouldn’t have funded it because people aren’t using it,'" says Logan.
"Well, people will use it if it’s convenient.”
SunRail says it will extend the service if there’s demand.
TOD is still untested in Central Florida, and that’s made it challenging for developers to get financing for big projects around rail. Compared to cities with well-established mass transit system like New York, Central Florida’s urban environment is relatively young, with most of the big growth springing up in the last 50 years. But Gregg Logan says that could be an advantage.
“I guess the good news is we can go to some of these other places and look at what worked," he says, "and borrow some of their best ideas.”
Logan says Central Florida should take inspiration from Portland’s street car and the Washington DC Metro, where TOD has driven up the value of land around rail stations. While Florida Hospital has big plans for development, some of the other stops along the rail line aren’t as far advanced.
One landowner trying to attract business for a potential development is Tupperware. Spokesperson Thomas Roehlk says the company has 100 acres for mixed use set aside at its headquarters near the Osceola Parkway station.
“We haven’t had the interest yet from businesses, partially as a consequence of the fact that we are in phase two, so we’re four years out from having a station, and secondly just because of the slow uptick to the economy," He says.
However, Roehlk believes Tupperware’s plan will succeed in the long run because of the location’s proximity to another major transport hub -- Orlando International Airport.
Meanwhile, developer Craig Ustler says once the train starts running past his building at Florida Hospital, Orlando residents will begin to see the potential for a well-planned urban environment.
“I think the vast majority of people have woken up to the fact that living 30 miles away from where they work, and driving, and the price of gas and all that is probably not the most efficient thing in the world," says Ustler.
"We still need some time to work through exactly how to fix that and how to give people the tools to make a move.”
Ustler's apartment complex breaks ground next month.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
In central Florida the car rules. A network of wide highways link sprawling cities.
But now two machines which saw their heyday in Florida more than a century ago are making a comeback: the train and the bike.
With the arrival of the SunRail commuter train in 2014 some cities are looking to bicycles as a way to get passengers to their final destination.
In Winter Park -- built in the late 1800s -- the city's sustainability coordinator Tim Maslow is thinking about how to incorporate cycling into the transportation mix. Maslow says the new SunRail and Amtrak train station could be a starting point for bike sharing.
“We see having a station here with maybe ten bikes at first to see how it goes," says Maslow. "You could go up to 20 bikes per station with some of the companies we’ve been looking at.”
One company talking with Winter Park is the Wisconsin based B-cycle, which is backed by the bike manufacturer Trek. In Denver, the company has some 50 bike share stations where users can rent their bikes, and B-cycle says the system works well with the city's light rail line. Train passengers use the bikes to go the last leg of their journey after getting off the train.
Bike sharing already has a foothold in South Florida, where Broward County has started a system. Sales manager Lee Jones went for a ride around Orlando on a recent visit. He says bike share stations around SunRail may have to be positioned to avoid the busiest roads.
“I did find some of the very wide streets, basically three lanes across, it was almost like being on the interstate," he says.
Some cities along the rail line are ideally situated for this back to the future approach to getting around.
Tim Maslow, from Winter Park, points out his city was designed so passengers could easily walk to and from the train station.
“That was before the automobile was so prevalent in everyone’s lives, so when they came down to the train station they actually had to go to different locations that were no longer than a 15-20 minute walk, because in Florida no one would walk that far,” says Maslow.
A return to cycling as a primary means of transportation may seem a bit old fashioned. But when the bicycle first appeared in America, it was high tech. In the 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman's Cassidy shows off a bicycle with the words: "meet the future."
The movie was set in the late 1800s, when the real-life Cassidy and the Kid were robbing trains in the American West.
In Florida at that time, rail barons were laying a network of tracks across the state, and the whole country was gripped by a cycling craze.
"It was huge in this country, huge," says Tim Bustos, the executive director of the Florida Bicycle Association.
"Next to the railroad, bicycling was like the most powerful transportation lobby out there. [Bicycles] were expensive, so it was mostly well to do and influential people that could afford them.”
And in the late 1800s, well-to-do people were taking the train to cities like Winter Park to spend their winter vacations.
Winter Park’s not the only place where rail and cycling could make a comeback.
The Florida Bicycle association’s headquartered in Deland, and Tim Bustos dreams of making the city a hub for cycling in the state.
He says SunRail’s completion in 2016 could help, by giving riders better access to a network of cycling trails. Bike share could also be part of the mix.
“People that would have rented a car five years ago, are now using bike shares," he says.
"It’s cheaper, it’s easier, it’s more enjoyable.”
Some DeLand cyclists have reservations- they say a safe route first has to be found from the train station to the city’s downtown, five miles away.
“We’re researching routes that could be bike friendly," says Ted Beyler, who owns the Deland Cyclery, one of two bicycle shops in Deland. Beyler’s on a chamber of commerce committee looking into the problem, and he says if that can be worked out, bike sharing could take off.
"That’s the major hindrance that I see is the proximity of the station to downtown Deland," says Beyler.
However, central Florida bicycle advocates agree that SunRail’s arrival brings with it a chance to begin a new chapter in the shared history of cycling and rail.
Monday, June 04, 2012
Metro Orlando tops the national list of dangerous cities for pedestrians, according to Transportation for America. On average one pedestrian is killed every week and two are injured every day.
Local civic leaders believe a new initiative can reduce the number of crashes and fatalities. They’ve set an ambitious goal of cutting the pedestrian crash rate by 10 per cent a year over the next five years, which they say can be done through a combination of education, enforcement and road improvements.
Launched last week, Best Foot Forward is a joint initiative of Bike Walk Central Florida, local governments, law enforcement and health groups including the Winter Park Health Foundation and Orlando Health.
Coalition chair, former Orange County Mayor Linda Chapin, says pedestrian safety should be a priority in Central Florida.
“It’s about safety, of course, because people are dying. They’re dying every week,” says Chapin.
She says drivers and pedestrians both have to change their behavior to bring down the accident rate. She says residents have to make a choice about the kind of city they want to live in.
“Will it be the kind of friendly community we’ve all visited and recognized, where drivers acknowledge pedestrians with a smile and wave as they slow and then stop for a crosswalk?”
With about 730 pedestrian injuries and 45 deaths a year, Orlando has some way to go.
But Mighk Wilson, MetroPlan Orlando’s Smart Growth Planner, says bringing the rate down by 10 per cent a year can be done.
“It certainly is ambitious, but it is doable. Fatalities are really tough to deal with,” says Wilson Reducing crashes as a whole has to be more of the strategy.”
Wilson says one design fix will be to increase street lighting, although that can be expensive.
Another improvement is retrofitting roads with medians.
“Having a refuge in the middle of a roadway greatly improves safety for pedestrians,” says Wilson.
Ultimately, he says, a lot of the responsibility for preventing crashes falls on drivers.
“What we’ve forgotten as a culture is that there are crosswalks at every intersection, whether they’re marked or not,” he says.
“While it’s true that many crashes involve a pedestrian who’s crossing mid block and doesn’t yield to traffic in the roadway, they could walk fifty feet over to the nearest intersection and cross in an unmarked crosswalk, but no one’s going to recognize that crosswalk.”
So the coalition will also focus on educating pedestrians to use crosswalks, and letting drivers know Florida’s law requires them to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings says drivers who don’t stop for pedestrians can expect to get tickets.
“There will be individuals who initially when we begin will be given warnings, then they’ll be cited,” says Demings.
“The best way we probably can change the behavior of pedestrians and drivers is to ensure that we have appropriate enforcement.”
Bike Walk Central Florida says it will cost about 350 thousand dollars a year to roll out its program across Orange County; it’s applying for a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to help with funding. The money will be used for education programs for pedestrians, drivers and law enforcement officers, and low cost road improvements.
Meanwhile the city of Orlando is also trying to make the environment safer for pedestrians. Currently it’s halfway through a 4 million dollar, federally funded program to add 18 miles of sidewalks to city streets.
Friday, May 18, 2012
(Orlando, FLA -- WMFE) The company that wants to begin a privately funded passenger rail service from Orlando to Miami says it expects to get millions of drivers out of their cars and riding the rails once it starts rolling.
Florida East Coast Industries executives are meeting with local authorities as they decide on the exact route of the service.
If the rail service starts as planned in 2014, it's expected to improve connections to regional transportation hubs in Central Florida.
FECI traces its roots back to Henry Flagler, one of the wealthy industrialists who created a network of railways and hotels throughout the state from the late 1800s.
The company already owns 200 miles of track needed for the route- it says it will cost a billion dollars to build the final 40 miles between Cocoa and Orlando, and modify the existing freight track to accommodate the new service, called All Aboard Florida.
Spokesperson Christine Barney says there’s an appetite for intercity rail in Florida, but the failed high-speed rail project between Tampa and Orlando shows tax payers don't want to bear the risk.
This service isn't billed as high speed rail, but it would hit speeds of 100 miles per hour and more, allowing it to make the trip from Orlando to Miami in about 3 hours.
Barney says the company is confident it will get the funding it needs to start in 2 years time.
“We’re already looking at selecting the operators, picking the actual trains, you know, we’re moving very quickly," she says.
"We understand that if the project is going to move forward things have to happen quickly, but we think that’s a reasonable expectation.”
Barney says for the service to be a success, it has to run frequently.
"If you think about the successful rail corridors like in the North East, you can go from New York to Washington, and if you get to the station at 10.15, you've missed your 10, but there's another train at 11," says Barney.
She says the aim is to have between 12 and 14 trains running every day.
That could mean up to 3 million fewer cars on the road, but Barney admits it may be a challenge getting drivers to change their habits.
“It is going to be a learned behavior because people haven’t had this option before. But our initial studies indicate that there are enough people that don’t like the delays that occur, the traffic that occurs, the cost, wear and tear on cars, gas, and the difficulties of driving.”
The train will stop in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, and Barney says there could also be the potential to link up to airports and seaports, including Port Canaveral and Orlando International Airport.
Stan Thornton, project Liaison Manager for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, says the airport is ready to connect to rail- whether it's the SunRail commuter train set to start rolling in 2014, light rail, or an intercity service.
"We've always had rail in our master planning," says Thornton.
"When high speed rail was getting serious we went ahead and laid out how some of the different types of rail would get into here."
Thornton says the airport is talking to Florida East Coast Industries about their plans.
He says the proposed rail service could increase passenger traffic by giving people better connections to the airport.
“People have a tendency of how far they’ll drive before they’ll fly. We have people who come down from Jacksonville, we know that from our garage traffic, so it’s what we call a catchment area and we think that could increase by up to 50 per cent.”
All Aboard Florida is not the only passenger rail service that could be rolling on the east coast. Amtrak, which already has an inland service running from Jacksonville to Miami twice a day in both directions, is also exploring another service along on the same stretch of track. Amtrak has a ridership study underway, but no date on when that will be finished.
Florida East Coast Industries says Amtrak and All Aboard could both use the track without any conflict.
The company says it will have a better idea of the final route of the train and the timeline for completion once ridership, engineering and environmental studies are finished in the next few months.
Tuesday, May 01, 2012
(Orlando, FL -- WMFE) With more than three million residents over the age of 65, Florida's population has the highest proportion of senior citizens of any state in the US. One challenge facing many of Florida's seniors is how to get out and about once they can no longer drive.
In Orlando, some 300 seniors subscribe to the Independent Transportation Network private non-profit car service. Bea Chernok uses ITN a couple of times a week, for everything from doctors visits to social excursions.
"Last week, on a Sunday, they took me down to the Carr Auditorium, I saw an opera, they picked me up, and I wasn’t afraid," she says.
Chernok says ordinarily she wouldn't go out at night, but she feels safe with the ITN drivers, like John McCallister.
McCallister started volunteering after he retired about three years ago.
"Since then I’ve driven about 30 thousand miles," he says. "After three and a half years of picking up the same people every week, boy, you become family.”
Hospitals are a major destination for ITN drivers according to executive director Kimber Threet.
"Obviously when you’re offering this type of service and our target market is seniors, they typically have a need for medical services," Threet says.
"We’ve included all of the medical buildings especially down on Orange Avenue here in Orlando. That’s where all of your main hotspots are.”
Starting in 2014, seniors will have more transportation options in the medical corridor. They’ll be able to take advantage of the SunRail commuter train stop at Florida Hospital on North Orange. Taxis are also part of the transportation mix for seniors, but Threet says the shorter trips that many ITN clients take aren't always financially attractive to cab drivers.
ITN's average trip length is three and a half miles, which costs the rider about nine dollars. There’s also a 60 dollar annual membership fee.
That’s too expensive for some, but public mass transit does provide an alternative. Central Florida’s Lynx bus service operates a fleet of minivans and cars for its Access Lynx door to door service. More than 11 thousand people- not just seniors- use it, but director Bill Hearndon admits Access Lynx isn’t perfect.
“We’re out there traveling in the same congestion as everyone else is. If there’s an accident on I-4, our day’s shot," he says.
"If it rains, traffic tie ups happen through out the service area and our on-time performance is down the drain."
Still, Hearndon says for some customers, Access Lynx provides the only social interaction they get.
"We have customers who if it weren’t for our service, would be stuck at home, would be shut in."
Hearndon says there isn’t enough money to meet demand for the door to door service. Access Lynx already turns down 2,000 applicants each year.
"Lynx doesn’t have a dedicated funding source. So every year we literally have to go begging for funding,” he says.
That leaves churches, synagogues, mosques and other community organizations working to help fill a growing transportation need. Pegge Stickel organizes a car service with close to a hundred volunteer drivers at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Winter Park.
Stickel's volunteer model doesn’t require regular commitment from drivers. She says it’s so successful 13 other faith communities in Orlando have adopted it. But she worries people can rely too much on the work of volunteers.
“When the city can’t, when the county can’t, when the federal government can’t, when the private, non-profits can’t, they turn to the faith communities, and then unfortunately we become overwhelmed with the burden of responsibility,” says Stickel.
Voluntary organizations are under pressure, and public mass transit and private non-profit car services also face a funding squeeze. However, advocates for the elderly agree more time and money needs to be invested to help seniors stay mobile.
Friday, January 27, 2012
(Orlando, Florida) State and local officials joined supporters of Central Florida’s commuter train SunRail to break ground on the project in Altamonte Springs Friday.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer Buddy reflected the positive mood surrounding the $1.2 billion project. "It’s a historic day for all of Central Florida, it ushers in a new era of transportation options for our residents, it ushers in jobs, smarter growth, so a very important day," he said.
But there are concerns that the SunRail line, which is slated to start service in the spring of 2014, will be relying on the regional bus service LYNX too heavily to bring passengers closer to major destinations.
Seminole County Commissioner Carlton Henley Chairs the LYNX Board of Directors.
He says LYNX is already struggling to provide services to its existing routes and that additional SunRail capacity highlights the need for a dedicated funding source for transportation programs." I would like to see, quite frankly, a sales tax approach," he said. "I don’t want to put any burden on property, but I think a regional sales tax would produce the revenue that’s need for both roads, rail, and bus."
The SunRail line will come in two phases and eventually connect along 61 miles of track between Deland and Poinciana.
Monday, October 17, 2011
"What's different is we've been there and done it," the Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee told a crowd gathered at the 18th World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems being held in Orlando this week.
"No one liked the partial shutdown, it caused a great disruption but it did get me a solution. We will have in place long term transportation policy definitely for aviation, and I'm going to do my best for surface and highway transportation."
More Money Please
Mica also said he wants to fund transportation and infrastructure projects beyond their current level but didn't provide specifics, "We've got to find a whole new way for funding transportation." One idea the Congressman adamantly opposed was any consideration of increasing the Federal gas tax, "completely off the table is any raise in the gas tax. We are looking at funding possibly, the speaker (John Boehner) has said some other sources, maybe at the wellhead, maybe where we could get a more reliable and steady transportation funding mechanism. Right now the system is broken. You drive further and you pay less."
Some ideas that could save money for drivers and governments are on display at the 18th ITS World Congress. One of them is the newly commissioned Central Florida National Test Bed for connected vehicles. The test bed is composed of a 25 mile loop around part of Interstate 4 loaded with short range radio and GPS transmitters. Those transponders communicate with so called "connected vehicles" which share safety information in real-time. The idea is supposed to allow drivers to receive safety warnings if there is road hazard or car crash ahead. Proponents of the technology, including the US Department of Transportation estimate implementing a "connected vehicle system" could reduce traffic congestion and emissions, and lower driving costs.