SunRail's fate will say a lot

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Win or lose, SunRail is more than a pivotal point for the future of transportation in Central Florida; it's a test of the collective muscle of the region's most influential companies.

Walt Disney World, Darden Restaurants, Orlando Health, Florida Hospital, the Orlando Magic and others have lined up behind the $1.2 billion train that would give commuters an alternative to Interstate 4 and elevate public transportation to a new level.

Yet, with only one week left in the legislative session, the project is barely clinging to life.

Political and business leaders miscalculated the fallout from a record budget deficit and an escalating public-relations war that pits the train against dollars for education.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, the most visible and outspoken supporter of SunRail, said Senate leaders recently asked SunRail backers to "stand down" so that lawmakers can work out the issue among themselves.

"The business community has done about everything that has been asked of them," Dyer said. "Other than the [ University of Central Florida] medical school, I've never seen an effort that has had more support and more response from the business community."

But top executives at the largest companies have chosen not to directly answer SunRail critics.

Clarence Otis of Darden, Jim Atchison of Busch Entertainment and Bill Davis of Universal Orlando have kept quiet, instead letting their lobbyists take the lead and pledging support behind two local business-advocacy groups, the Central Florida Partnership and the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission.

Walt Disney President Meg Crofton hasn't spoken publicly about SunRail since a column she wrote in support of the train was published in the Sentinel in February, before the legislative session began.

Jacob Stuart, who leads the partnership as an umbrella group over the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce, defends business leaders' efforts on behalf of SunRail.

Stuart moved to Tallahassee for the 60-day legislative session and aligned a coalition of corporations for the cause.

"When it comes to the conclusion we are seeking; please know, it's not who's 'in the room,' it's what 'voices' are 'being heard,' and it's what 'resources' are being applied to address the growing challenges and accelerate the many exciting opportunities we are facing as a region and as a state," Stuart said in an e-mail.

The Orlando Magic, led by Chief Operating Officer Alex Martins, purchased 5,000 SunRail pins for Stuart to hand out. And the Magic have made announcements urging fans to support SunRail over the public-address system during NBA playoff games, a Magic spokesman said.

Stuart calls the partnership's work a "historic regional effort" with support from business groups in Tampa, Polk County and Jacksonville.

To survive, SunRail needs crucial votes from senators who represent those areas outside of Orlando, but so far those votes have not materialized.

If SunRail fails, it shouldn't be a reflection on business, said Florida Hospital Chief Executive Lars Houmann, who along with Orlando Health Chief Executive John Hillenmeyer has mixed SunRail lobbying with advocacy on health-care issues.

"All it says is that it's very complicated and messy to get anything done in a big state that has lots of regional interests that can get in the way," Houmann said.

As the horse trading for votes gets under way in the final week of the session, now is the time for local business leaders to give lawmakers a final reminder of just how important commuter rail is to our region.

Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448. Read her blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/thebottomline.

Rail's road

Track the twists and turns at OrlandoSentinel .com/sunrail
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