Around the State- Central- March 2000
Proposed Interstate roadwork offers Orlando commuters little relief.
By Ken Ibold
Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to expand Interstate 4 from Disney to I-95 will take 10 years and cost up to $600 million, but "Mobility 2000" does little to stifle the pleas of gridlock-weary commuters to downtown Orlando.
Drivers in Volusia County will find more relief, with about 40% of the money going toward widening I-4 in Volusia and replacing the bridge over the St. Johns River. Widening the road near Universal Studios Escape, replacing the interchange between I-4 and the East-West Expressway, and replacing an interchange near Disney round out the planned projects.
Although Bush's plan does not specifically address the push by Orange County Commission Chairman Mel Martinez to expand I-4 through downtown Orlando to five lanes in each direction, it does accelerate other work seen as precursor to the river of asphalt Martinez envisions. Still, Florida Department of Transportation officials say a 10-lane I-4 is decades away.
The projects were picked on the basis of relieving urban congestion, facilitating storm evacuation, and supporting trade and tourism. "The idea is to use the funds you have and spend some of the money to get some relief anywhere you can," says Florida DOT spokesman Dick Kane.
The only immediate relief for commuters between Orlando's thriving northern suburbs and downtown is a single, reversible lane to accommodate car-poolers and possibly those willing to pay a toll. The lane, which has been a political football for years and is not part of the governor's proposal, will serve inbound traffic in the morning and outbound traffic in the evening. The lane will be separated from the other lanes by a barrier, and drivers would be able to get in and out of the lane at only a few locations.
As a car-pool lane, it will handle an estimated 1,200 cars per hour -- 80% of its capacity -- during rush hour when it's opened in 2002. Adding access as a toll lane would likely lead to such high tolls the idea has led to the stretch being called "Lexus Lane."
The good news is that the state of Florida owns the right of way for the $43-million stretch, and some of the preliminary work was done years ago when the highway was last widened.
Critics say it's too little, while supporters, such as Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood, contend the limited expansion prevents the highway from further bisecting downtown Orlando into a prosperous east side and a downtrodden west side. As the decade-long road-building plan looms, the certain prospect of construction delays may have central Florida drivers wondering whether they're behind the wheel in Orange County or Orange Cone County.
In the News
Cocoa Beach -- Ron Jon Surf Shop merchandise is now available in Japan at small surf and sport shops, following a new partnership with Japanese retail store licensee Avant Garde Spirit and distributor Takashima USA. The partners will design, manufacture and distribute Ron Jon-branded products such as T-shirts, other apparel and souvenir items.
Eustis -- Mid-Florida Airport officials say it will construct up to 17 hangars in a 15,000-sq.-ft. building, which the 25-year-old airport hopes to complete by the end of March.
Heathrow -- State regulators shut down SunStar Healthcare Inc. after the 83,000-member HMO failed to maintain adequate capital reserves. All 130 employees of the 3-year-old company lost their jobs, and the HMO members were transferred to a state-funded program. It was the first state takeover of an HMO since three were seized in 1998.
Lake Buena Vista -- Walt Disney World announced plans to build its third apartment complex for temporary workers on land the company already owns. Disney has two apartment complexes with a total of 736 units, but those are not enough for the 3,000 college students and international workers who work short stints at Disney. The company has just started drawing up plans for the project; no construction date has been decided.
Orlando -- A study of resort tax usage by the Orange County comptroller concluded that the county's tourist development tax revenues will be tied up by existing commitments for at least five years. If tax collections increase modestly -- something they haven't done for two years -- the tax may generate a slight surplus to fund small projects. For years the bulk of the tax will be used to pay for the $700-million expansion of the Orange County Convention Center.
Planet Hollywood (OTC-BB: PLHYQ) emerged from bankruptcy protection, but found that actor Arnold Schwarzenegger will allow his five-year contract with the company to end, eliminating his ownership interest. The restaurant chain said it retained the rights to use Schwarzenegger's "name and likeness," but that it will continue to search for backers among Hollywood's hottest talent.
The University of Central Florida will have its own hospitality school now that hotelier Harris Rosen says he will make good on a $10-million pledge he made in 1998. In July the program will sever its ties with the UCF business school and become its own entity. The school will have 14 professors, up from seven, expects to enroll up to 1,000 students, up from 250, and will award a bachelor of science in hospitality management.
A marketing consultant and movie producer from Beverly Hills, Calif., is suing Disney for $100 million, saying it was his idea to put permanent performances of Cirque du Soleil in Disney theme parks. The suit was filed more than seven months ago, but plaintiff Stuart Jacobson said he kept it quiet until attempts to negotiate an out-of-court settlement failed.
The Health Network at Universal Studios Florida laid off more than 40 production workers -- about half of the studio's workforce -- on the heels of a corporate reorganization. The Health Network was formed by the merger of Orlando-based America's Health Network, Fox Television's Fit TV and Healtheon/WebMD Corp. The new company has decided to use more celebrities in its programming and is shifting some of the production work to facilities in New York and Los Angeles.
Miami-based Carnival Corp. (NYSE: CCL) agreed to merge with timeshare company Fairfield Communities in a $755-million stock deal. Fairfield, which would become a wholly owned subsidiary of Carnival, owns 28 timeshare resorts in 11 states and the Bahamas.
Avstar Completion Center Inc. said it will build an aircraft interiors customizing facility at Orlando International Airport, hiring between 150 and 200 people within a few months and up to 400 within two years. The company will specialize in gutting airliners and refitting them as customized jets for the wealthy.
Barnie's Coffee & Tea Co. founder Barnie Philip Jones sold his interest in the company and resigned, which may lead to Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp. buying the 20-year-old specialty coffee company. Sara Lee already owns most of Barnie's preferred stock, and former Sara Lee executive Jacques VanDijk is Barnie's other major shareholder.
Orlando entertainment industry mogul Louis Pearlman has launched a charter airline called Planet Airways. Planet has received its certification from the Federal Aviation Administration and is in the process of recruiting customers. The fledgling airline so far has one Boeing 727 and is on the lookout for two more.
The U.S. Army Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM) awarded Lockheed Martin Information Systems a $34.6-million contract to produce 51 Close Combat Tactical Trainer modules for the Army. The work will be completed by August 2001. Lockheed Martin employs about 6,500 workers at central Florida facilities.
Winter Park -- LaserSight Inc. announced plans to begin selling its eye-surgery lasers this month, after negotiations to end patent-infringement litigation with Visx Inc. fell through. Visx served LaserSight with a lawsuit in November, the day after the FDA approved LaserSight's device. LaserSight countersued, and the two companies agreed to suspend litigation while negotiating a settlement. LaserSight says it has reconsidered that strategy after concluding again that it did not infringe on a Visx patent.