Riding the rails

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What's Orlando to do with all the people who want to get from here to there? They're all diffused, even though they want to get to many of the same places: Disney, I-Drive, the airport, the mall, even (believe it or not) downtown. I-4, that terrible transportation worm going north-south even though it claims to be going east-west, cannot support everybody, and there's no arguing about that.

So the hot issue -- the somebody-make-it-stop issue -- of 1999 has been light rail, which at least shows that this relatively complacent city is thinking a bit about itself. Lacking "Star Trek"-like transporters, we need a way to move people in bulk. Mayor Glenda Hood and U.S. Rep. John Mica have been cheerleading for light rail since the beginning of the year, but the project's twists and turns have been more disorienting than the I-4/408 interchange.

Hood pushed for a downtown-to-I-Drive line, which would get tourists to Church Street and might even get a few locals to do something wacky like abandon their cars when they crave Tu Tu Tango and FAO Schwarz. More important, it would give city-based hospitality workers a way of getting to jobs in the tourist corridor. Meanwhile, Orange County commissioners, using their own mysterious rationale, preferred an airport-to-I-Drive line. Were they just being contrary, or adding enough trouble to deliberately doom the plan? Regardless, the disagreement made federal money granters suspicious of the on-again, off-again, on-again system. (There were more light-rail deaths and revivals than on a busy episode of ER.) That suspicion was, we must admit, well grounded. The city's plan expects residents, many dispersed in far-flung, self-enclosed housing developments, to drive to and park at a train stop. This might not be out of the question in a city less car-trained, but Orlando is nothing if not enamored of its automobiles.

Light rail has been Hood's defining cause this year -- after the county and the feds pulled money, she managed to strong-arm through a shabby and somewhat laughable version of it, going from downtown to Belz Factory Outlet World. This maneuver galvanized the longtime wrathful Hood opponents, who claimed she unlawfully pushed the plan through and therefore should be recalled from office, as well as raised the ire of mild skeptics who've grown weary of her and are now happy to support Commissioner Barry Gordy for mayor in the 2000 elections. No one was placated -- although everyone raised their eyebrows -- when Hood conceded defeat and, with what looked like nothing more than a shrug, gave up on light rail in early December.

Meanwhile more and more cars clog I-4, which was built to handle 80,000 vehicles but currently is weighted down by 160,000 commuters, who with a certain amount of apathy tolerate stop-and-go trips, stuttering at 30 mph in 55 mph zones. The plans to widen I-4 are marching on. Widen it to 10 lanes! Double-deck it into a road-rage eyesore! These are the solutions we've heard this year, and they leave us with one wistful idea: Wouldn't it be nice to walk to work?

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