March 14, 2013
|On Monday, March 11, Congressman John Mica visited Rollins College to discuss the future of transportation. (Photo by Scott Cook)|
Of all the local politicians, activists, planners, and academics who’ve been involved in this project for the better part of a decade, perhaps no one has been more fundamental to making SunRail, the commuter rail line that will open in 2014, a reality than John Mica. As a member and former chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the Republican congressman from Volusia County has been relentless in securing federal dollars for mass transit projects and, strange as it may seem, convincing state and local leaders to take his money. SunRail, as he points out, took many years (he started banging the commuter-rail drum around 1989), and a significant amount of arm-twisting to make happen.
“You know how long it took to get this damn thing going? You guys were still running around in your diapers!”
Mica is holding court in a lab in Olin, watching a trio of Master of Planning in Civil Urbanism (MPCU) students—Jose Carlos Ayala, Heather Tribou, and Travis Ray—wade through a presentation on potential transit-oriented developments near SunRail stations in Altamonte and Maitland. The MPCU students’ task was to create a development plan anchored by these future suburban train stations. And so they did. The result is a PowerPoint presentation that gets into the weeds of urban development: an apartment complex could go here, retail there, parking garages here, some bike lanes here would be nice. These stations, they report, would require intense, compact redevelopment for SunRail to succeed, a neighborhood center that easily link to apartments, first-floor retail, restaurants, and shops—the whole new urbanism motif.
The presentation is competent, well organized, and offers some intriguing ideas into how this commuter rail could change development in a region that, for almost its entire history, has seen unbridled sprawl.
But this is Mica’s home turf, a subject he knows as much about as anyone. He’s not about to let these MPCU students off without being grilled. And so the presentation felt less like a classroom experience than an appearance in front of Mica’s congressional committee. He interrupts frequently—and then apologizes, and then interrupts again—to dive deeply into details (“What happened to your parking? Where’s your transit connection?”). He interjects whenever he thinks something—say, an emphasis on walkability—just won’t work (“We are fat, basically obese, if you want to be polite. We don’t like to walk.”).
He’s skeptical of things like walkability because of the climate, and wants their proposal to have connections to buses. He asks if they’re doing this just for school, or if they’ve delivered their presentation to the local municipalities that will ultimately be making these decisions. (They have.)
After about 30 minutes, as the presentation winds down, Mica dovetails into a series of long and winding stories about the transit projects he’s witnessed in recent decades, some of which have been more successful than others—Metrorail and TriRail in Miami, an $8-billion project in New York City, an “unannounced,” privately funded high-speed rail “megaproject” that will connect to Orlando International Airport, and his dream to eventually connect SunRail across the St. Johns River Bridge into Volusia County.
Indeed, in Mica’s mind, SunRail is just the start. When Professor Richard Foglesong mentions that his students believe the commuter train will be “revolutionary,” Mica responds, “It will! It’s happened all over the country—often in spite of the locals!”
Kind of like he had to do in Florida.
Mica was on campus as part of the Democracy Project, a nonpartisan endeavor tasked with raising civic literacy and engagement at Rollins.
By Jeffrey Billman
Office of Marketing & Communications
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