Seeing the light on light rail

Gerry Nolan is not the anti-Guetzloe.

But he's as close as the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce can get, and he's the only counterweight to Doug Guetzloe's anti-light-rail forces.

Nolan worked as the Chamber's vice president until Dec. 4, when he became the head of Central Florida Citizens for Light Rail. The organization is small (Nolan didn't get his first paycheck until January) and hasn't yet filed for recognition as a nonprofit to lobby political issues. But already "I probably have a list of supporters in excess of 250 people," Nolan says. "They range from a bank president to attorneys to labor, from framers to plumbers; I got downtown residents."

What he really has is a kind of Astroturf outfit, a pseudo-grass-roots organization that just happens to count a few genuine environmentalists along with the big-business interests who back it. It more closely resembles "Common Cents," the downtown-and-civic-leadership-backed group created to oppose Guetzloe and to push last year's failed penny sales tax. And it was formed at a crucial time for light-rail fans.

Congressman John Mica (R-Winter Park) has planted $44 million for light rail in this year's federal budget. But if the Orange County Commission -- which previously has endorsed light rail -- now turns thumbs down, the money will go to a system in Tampa or Charlotte, N.C. It will not be reassigned to road widening in Florida or anywhere else. A hearing and vote is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9, in the commission's chambers.

Guetzloe, the scrappy (some say malevolent) political consultant and radio host, has garnered attention poking holes in the $600 million project's budget and ridership estimates. He recently received a boost from County Chairman Mel Martinez, who empanelled a commission that said the budget for land acquisition is maybe $80 million too low. In conservative Central Florida, the notion of spending tax dollars on anything as big and broad-minded as mass transit goes down like a bowl of screws. The further allegation that planning on the project is sloppy or costs are underestimated is like ipecac sauce.

The Orlando City Council will vote Monday on the question, and is expected to endorse it, as they have once before. But on the County Commission -- whose political make-up was redefined by the November elections -- support for a non-binding resolution to keep light rail alive is no longer assured. Mary Johnson has come out for it; Bob Freeman is unwavering in opposition. The remaining five commissioners have not decided.

The 53-page Martinez Commission's report, released last week, is supposed to help them decide. With its focus on risk assessment and the inherent unreliability of budget projections, the report is pessimistic. "Longer term financial obligations are unclear and may perhaps be substantial," it says. "A commitment to fund Light Rail Transit will result in a redirection of resources from other Orange County priorities."

The county is required to pony up 1.8 percent of the project's projected cost, or $11 million. The federal share is $330 million. The state's contribution would be $135 million. To proponents like Nolan, the debate about county tax dollars is akin to a lottery winner turning down a $10 million prize because she doesn't want to move up to a higher tax bracket.

The prize in this case: A rail link from downtown to Sea World. The possibility of luring thousands of commuters off I-4. An easy route for tourists into downtown.

"Our estimate is 27,000 riders a year," says Warren Wright, a spokesman for the Lynx public-transit agency that would build and run the rail, "and by federal law we can estimate only 10 percent of them as tourists." Of course, that percentage is likely to be greater here, which opens up the possibility of a more evenly used line. Typical commuter patterns show morning, evening and lunch rushes, Wright says. In Orlando, "instead of the three-rush system, we'll have maybe five or six rushes: people going to work, tourists who wake up at 9, the lunch crowd, tourists going back to their hotels in the midafternoon, workers going home after work, and then tourists going out in the evening."

The cost of not building something to relieve I-4 is understood. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute released in January put the cost of congestion in Orlando -- in wasted time and wasted gas -- at $535 million a year. "The cost of traffic congestion for one year is the cost of light rail," says Wright. A rail link would not eliminate traffic jams, but "you'll have another way to get somewhere other than to get in your car."

Or it might be a boondoggle. People might not like to ride past all the stalled cars. It might cost the county $20 million.

"The world revolves around Feb. 9," says Nolan, with customary overstatement. "Either the Orange County Commission is gonna stand up and say, ‘We're gonna provide options for citizens on how they get to and from work; we're going to invest in a progressive public project that is no different from the convention center, the airport, the arena' -- either they're going to realize that they have such a bargain staring them in the face, or they're going to make a mistake."

He thinks about it a minute, and then that optimism kicks in. "There are vested interests of the various commissioners that are being taken into account right now," he says. "Why should `Homer` Hartage, `Clarence` Hoenstein, Martinez support this? Because it's in the best interest of them not to have their constituents stuck in traffic! They'll begin to fall in line. They're not going to get such a sweetheart deal ever again."