By Richard Bilbao 

The future Orlando-to-Tampa path of the multibillion-dollar Brightline intercity rail system still is being determined, and business leaders are working feverishly to figure out how International Drive can be connected to it.

Stakeholders such as the I-Drive business chamber of commerce and Universal Orlando Resort have been meeting or plan to meet with Brightline after a March presentation with the Central Florida Expressway Authority showed a potential path to the corridor, sources told Orlando Business Journal.

In addition, officials with Orange County have confirmed to OBJ that future discussions are expected to occur on some kind of transportation option connecting to I-Drive.

At stake is the potential for the popular tourist corridor to tap into the intercity rail that will connect Miami to Orlando via the Orlando International Airport by 2022 and eventually Tampa in the future — including a stop at Walt Disney World’s Disney Springs dining, shopping and entertainment complex. I-Drive welcomes more than 15 million visitors each year, including more than 3 million to the Orange County Convention Center.

Currently, Brightline is working on its $2.7 billion, 170-mile extension from West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport, which is roughly 49% complete. Service is expected to start in 2023 after completion of the route in late 2022. 

The two potential Orlando-to-Tampa routes include one from the airport down State Road 417 or a more costly option along State Road 528 that could lead to I-Drive. The roughly 17-mile route from the Orlando airport to Disney Springs would cost between $1.03 billion-$2.1 billion, depending on which alignment is selected.

The rail company wants to start service on that segment as early as third-quarter 2026, which has sparked I-Drive leaders to get more involved.

‘It’s only logical’

Leaders who represent and do business on the corridor said a connection to International Drive has the potential to serve myriad parties, workers and more.

“The International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce has been holding meetings with Brightline to further discuss route options. The meetings have been a positive means of communication to discuss in detail the financial analysis of the project as well as look at detailed logistics and financial opportunities for a station at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) to service the I-Drive corridor,” said Maria Triscari, president and CEO of the International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce. “With millions of visitors to the I-Drive corridor, over 75,000 employees and over 20,000 residents with over $2 billion of future projects planned to date, a mass transit from OIA to I-Drive is imperative to best service our community and continue the economic growth of our entire region.”

MariaTriscari 2
Maria Triscari, president/CEO, International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce

Meanwhile, Universal Orlando Resort will make its own push in a future meeting for I-Drive to have a Brightline connection, said sources with close knowledge of the ongoing activity. A rail system connecting to I-Drive would benefit Universal’s future Epic Universe theme park that’s now under construction.

Executives with Universal were not available for comment. However, during the 2019 unveiling of Epic Universe, Tom Williams, Universal Parks & Resorts chairman/CEO previously said the theme park would push “with every bit of strength that we’ve got” to get a Brightline connection to the I-Drive corridor.

“It’s only logical for so many reasons to have the train come from south Florida to the airport, from the airport to the convention center and then go down to Disney … You can’t bypass the convention center — it makes absolutely no sense. It ignores the investment that’s been made here. It ignores the whole purpose of drawing visitation on behalf of the convention center in the first place. What is more logical than a conventioneer being able to fly into the airport, get on a train and then five minutes later they are at the convention center,” he said at the 2019 event.

Meanwhile, Orange County still is making an effort to find a solution, but it hasn’t met with Brightline since a February update.

“The need for rail connectivity between I-Drive and the Orlando airport has been a longstanding priority and there have been a number of studies and proposals in the past,” Carla Bell Johnson, assistant county administrator, told OBJ. “Brightline provided an informational presentation regarding their proposed rail system to the board of county commissioners on [Feb. 23] and the topic of connectivity to the International Drive area was raised during that discussion. Since that time, there have been no specific meetings between the county and Brightline focused on how to connect their rail system to International Drive. However, we do anticipate there will be upcoming discussions with International Drive stakeholders regarding potential options for providing transit connectivity to the International Drive area.”

Carla Bell Johnson
Carla Bell Johnson, Orange County assistant county administrator.

A money question

A lingering issue will be how the bridge the nearly $1 billion gap in the cost to build each of the two proposed routes. At the moment, the State Road 417 route which wouldn’t connect to I-Drive is the cheaper pathway for the rail system.

A potential solution may be a potential future transportation tax proposed by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings. Last April, efforts for the proposed penny sales tax hike, which would generate about $300 million annually for a dedicated transportation fund, were tabled due to the pandemic before it could go on the 2020 ballot for voters to approve. The soonest that vote for the tax could happen is 2022.

County officials said Demings has not made any decisions on whether or not to pursue the proposed tax hike for a dedicated transportation fund. However, an investment by Orange County in rail lines and a train station in the Orange County Convention Center/I-Drive corridor to allow connectivity from the Orlando International Airport “is certainly a viable use of these funds,” Angel de la Portilla, president of Central Florida Strategies, an Orlando-based government consultant firm working with both the public and private sectors, told OBJ.

Angel de la Portilla
Angel de la Portilla of Central Florida Strategies

It’s unknown if the ongoing discussions may affect the future plans of the rail system. However, Brightline does recognize the need for a solution for the I-Drive corridor.

“With a sharp focus on building transportation networks in Florida and with billions invested in connecting the state, we recognize the opportunity to solve a long-standing issue in Central Florida,” Ben Porritt, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Brightline, told OBJ. “We’re actively working with all key stakeholders in the region on a solution that will establish connectivity between the convention center and the Orlando International Airport.”

Staff Writer Ryan Lynch contributed to this report.

Source: Orlando Business Journal

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