The little engine that could go to the mall

Light rail, the region's longest-running political soap opera, was on track for a potentially long run -- until the Orange County Commission unplugged the show a few weeks ago with a cliff-hanging 4-3 vote, halting a production that had run up $37 million in planning and publicity costs.

Immediately the breast-beating and finger-pointing began. Angry voices blamed the commission for all future traffic jams, the death of the good life in Central Florida and, indeed, the end of our children's happiness for the next 10 generations. A few particularly gratuitous Parthian shots were hurled in the direction of Commissioner Clarence Hoenstine, who had the audacity to do exactly what he had said he would do for years, i.e. vote against the project unless all the deals were wrapped up and all the papers properly signed.

But then, in a stunning 11th-hour act of brilliant political brinkmanship, visionary leadership or just plain stubborn petulance, Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood rescued light rail. During the city's final fiscal-year budget meeting, Hood engineered a sneak attack that snagged the votes for a shortened line -- call it Light Rail Lite or, perhaps, The Little Engine That Could -- ensuring that Her Honor would be getting her choo-choo train for Christmas, after all. In her triumph, Mayor Hood was quoted as saying, "We have to start somewhere!"

It's a gripping tale. But what gets lost in the histrionics is the fact that light rail, as it was originally envisioned -- a 14.7 mile tourist trolley from downtown to Sea World -- was never about giving commuters a viable option to leaving their cars at home, although that was how it was peddled to the public.

There are benefits to a decent light-rail system. If there were rail transportation down I-4, or across Orange County along Highway 50 -- something that would actually benefit citizens -- I'd sign on.

As proposed, though, I used to think that light rail was about development. That it was about making money on land upon which the route lay, and the buildup of that corridor with new businesses and attractions. That it was about a windfall of federal funds for local construction companies (and Hood supporters) and about politicians leaving a "legacy" regardless of whether the project actually did what it promised to do. That it was about gulling the public by pandering to its real desire to manage the problems of runaway growth and overcrowding. That, finally, it was about a small town trying to join the big leagues.

But Mayor Hood's inability to let the project go makes it clear that light rail is really about something else, something more heartfelt, viscerally real, and humanly satisfying than actually solving the problems brought about by profligate development. Light rail is really, REALLY about ... shopping! For you see, light rail is just another bargain that's just too good to pass up.

How do I know?

Some years ago, my mom worked in the men's department in a large store in L.A. Every few months she'd send me a package of ill-fitting, unstylish shirts I knew I'd never wear. Mom's heart, of course, was in the right place, so I'd always thank her for the gift, but couldn't help reminding her that the money could have been better spent elsewhere. "But honey," she'd reply, "they were so cheap; they're all marked down!" See, in Mom's eyes, she saved money because the purchase price was way below the original. To me, anything spent on the shirts was wasted, because the items would never be used. To mom, it was a bargain.

Thus, in the mayor's eyes, it's not the $48.1 million start-up and $2.35 million in annual operating costs the city will have to pony up for light rail that matter; it's the $228.8 million from the federal government that we won't have to pay that makes the project such an appealing buy. It's the logic of "discount" shopping at work. And even though light rail may well turn out to be an overbudgeted white elephant that nobody uses -- just as my shirts languished on their hangers -- it's still, to those who think that way, a satisfying and intelligent purchase. Thanks, Mom -- I mean, Madame Mayor.

So, it's entirely fitting that the eight-mile, quarter-of-a-billion-dollar train will be running from downtown to its new terminus at ... Belz Factory Outlet World! And as the years go by, it will be good to know that Her Honor, and the 20 or so other bargain hunters who regularly ride these rails, will be enjoying their 10-minute journey in carefree, air-conditioned comfort as they whisk by the I-4 commuters who are actually trying to get to work ... so they can afford the tax increases the light-rail bailout is sure to engender. It's public policy brought to you by The Shopping Network, where everything can be bought on time.

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