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Still hovering: Tony Morris pushes ‘maglev' trains

In Tony Morris’ vision of the not-toodistant future, at least 3 million people a year ride a magnetically levitated train that glides 13 miles between Orlando International Airport and the Orange County Convention Center. At the convention center, they’ll be able to board a similar train to shuttle to their hotels along a mile of International Drive. In Morris’ vision, his privately owned and funded train will startle the world with its dramatically cheaper cost to build and operate than conventional rail.

To get to that future, Morris and his American Maglev Technologies, based in Marietta, Ga., must first levitate over significant hurdles — not least of which is pulling off the technical challenge of building the first commercial maglev train in the Western Hemisphere.

Maglev, in which cars are lifted and propelled by magnets along a path, has been slow to win favor in the transportation world. The first, in Shanghai, opened only in 2004. The number of others completed or actually under construction elsewhere in the world can be counted on one hand.

Morris’ AMT also must rise above its own choppy past.

A quarter-century ago, Morris was hired as a consultant for the Atlanta Braves. The team had begun considering a move to the suburbs and was looking for a transportation solution for fans.

Morris’ work led him to maglev and to Orlando, where a company separate from his proposed in the late 1980s that Orlando get the world’s first maglev train — capable of going 250 mph — from the airport to Epcot. Later, maglev companies competed to build a Tampa-Orlando- Miami link.

By the mid-1990s, Morris and his AMT were operating a test facility in Edgewater in Volusia County. It later closed, then reopened as Morris won a job to build a maglev connector of less than a mile to serve Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

AMT broke ground at the school’s campus in 2001 with a $7-million loan from the state of Virginia. By 2003, however, the Orlando Sentinel was reporting that Old Dominion students were calling it “mag left” after AMT ran out of money and left the project unfinished. The Volusia facility in Edgewater closed in 2002.

Morris acknowledges the Old Dominion project “didn’t work out very well.” But he says the company learned how to build and never to rely on federal funding again, which he says didn’t come through as expected.

Morris will apply those lessons in Orlando, where, he says, his nearly $400-million project will be privately financed by pension and private equity funds and others who see a return in such a “desperately needed link” in Orlando’s resident and visitor market. The only public involvement is in leasing the land route.

The 13-mile “connector,” linking the convention center, Florida Mall and the airport, will be ready to go when the airport completes its south facility in 2017. Morris has secured a long-term lease from the state to use the right-ofway on the Beachline (State Road 528), which the “connector” will run on from the airport to the convention center. But he has yet to secure a similar lease from Orange County for the right-ofway on International Drive and the airport grounds.

Morris says “the circulator,” a roughly one-mile line route along International Drive, linking a spot just south of the convention center and three stops convenient to hotels, would come later.

Airport Director Phillip Brown says such a link would siphon revenue from the airport because tourists would rent fewer cars. “We generate a lot of revenue from rental cars,” Brown says. “The challenge we see is: No. 1, they’re going to impact our revenue stream. By the same token it would help us become more intermodal. What we’re hoping for is we can find a solution that’s revenue-neutral.”

Brown says the company will have to pay to build its own station and platform at the airport and as for its success, “ultimately it’s going to be how well formulated the business plan for American Maglev is.” It all will happen, Morris insists, with one-way tickets costing an average of between $12 and $16. He adds that he expects to sell tourists fare packages; convention-goers will pay as part of their convention admission. Each train will have a regular car and an economy car.

“These projects are really, really hard,” he says. “People who doubt it are going to continue to doubt it,” he says, until it’s running. “We want the whole world to come to Orlando to see what transportation will look like in the 21st century,” he says. “Cheaper to build, cheaper to operate, green technology.”

He projects 3.1 million riders the first year, rising to 7 million in 2025 and 10 million in 2035. The “connector” he hopes one day will run from Clearwater to Melbourne and the “circulator” up to Universal’s resort.

“That’s in the future,” he says.