Here in East Tennessee, every time there's a new major revitalization plan for Knoxville there is mention of light rail. (Along with a "discovery" center, but I digress.) People nod and say "that's nice" and go look at the maps to see how many of their homes and natural areas will be replaced with condos and office/retail/strip-mall developments.
They've been talking about light rail for years in Orlando, Florida, too. But now they are going to do something about it. Local transportation officials announced a couple of weeks ago that they are moving forward with a new 55 mile commuter rail system that will connect the Kissimmee area to the south with the bedroom community of DeBary to the north and points in between:
The commuter rail project is designed to connect Central Floridians from home to work in a faster, less congested and more relaxed style. The project will eventually connect DeBary to Kissimmee, spreading across 55 miles of rail with 12 stations.
The service is proposed to be offered primarily during 30 minute peak rush hour times. Off-peak service times are still to be determined.
The next step is to have the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) conduct an environmental assessment to determine the impact of commuter rail operations on Central Florida's ecosystem.
The assessment will begin this fall and is expected to be complete by next summer. Once the assessment is complete, gathering community consensus and identifying all funding sources will be the next steps prior to moving forward so that you can relax on your way to work on the commuter train.
If you've ever commuted from north of Orlando to downtown or to the airport, or if you've ever been there on vacation and shuttled back and forth between Disney to Daytona Beach, you know that I-4 gridlock at rush hour can be almost as bad as I-75 in downtown Atlanta. (Well, maybe not nearly that crazy, but still.) This sounds like a great, net environmentally friendly project for Central Florida.
Here in Tennessee we have a powerful road building lobby and a gasoline tax that is earmarked for road construction and that may not be used for anything else. This has resulted in billions for roads, making the state motto "First in roads, last in schools."
There is constant Interstate building and "improvement." There are impressive, Interstate-sized four- and sometimes six-lane highways with incredibly engineered bridge spans leading to rural counties with no more than 5000 residents who don't get out much.
What there isn't much of is light rail. In fact, I don't believe there are any cities in Tennessee with commuter rail. Large, relatively affluent counties such as Blount County (adjacent to Knox County) don't even have buses or public transportation of any kind.
As former Senator John Edwards said in our recent interview, a lack of public transportation, coupled with affordable or public housing being built too far away from job growth, are contributing factors in the problem of poverty. Dependence on petroleum-based personal transportation and the resulting dependence on foreign oil are not good environmental or national security policies, either. So congratulations to Orlando for taking a small step in the right direction.