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Tom Goodson bill to expand Central Florida Expressway Authority into Brevard clears house panel

State Rep. Tom Goodson‘s effort to expand the Central Florida Expressway Authority into Brevard County cleared a Florida House subcommittee Wednesday after Goodson told members that roads from the tollroad agency’s region already extend into Brevard County.

Questioning from some committee members appeared to suggest they thought Goodson implied that roads actually controlled by the agency extend into Brevard County.

They don’t.

The Central Florida Expressway Authority, known as CFX, neither owns nor operates any roads within four miles of Brevard, and has no explicit plans to ever do so.

“Today the primary responsibility of the Central Florida Expressway Authority is to construct, maintain and operate Central Florida expressways within the geographic boundaries of Orange, Seminole, and Osceola” counties, Goodson said in introducing his House Bill 299 to the House Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, leaving out Lake County.

“Sections of the expressway extend from I-4 in Orange County to Cape Canaveral in Brevard County. Major arteries in Brevard County extend into Osceola or Orange, 528, 520 and 192. Right now Brevard does not sit on the board. If this bill passes, it would provide a seat for Brevard County.”

The bill passed the committee 15-0, with at least a couple of the members expressing surprise that the authority was operating in Brevard without Brevard being represented on its board.

But the authority does not operate in Brevard, and does not have any plans to do so, except in undefined, long-range concepts that call for the possibility of one-day doing so.

Last month CFX officials said they knew nothing of any plan to ever add Brevard County to either their service area or their board. The CFX board was advised of Goodson’s bill two weeks ago and intends to discuss it next month.

The expressway Goodson mentioned that starts at I-4 and extends to Cape Canaveral, presumably State Road 528 [also known as the Beachline Expressway] is owned and operated as a toll road by the expressway authority only as far as State Road 520, which is still in Orange, about four miles west of the Brevard line. SR 528 extends from there to Cape Canaveral as a free highway, owned, maintained and operated by the Florida Department of Transportation. None of the other roads operated by CFX come nearly that close to Brevard.

The other two roads he mentioned, SR 520 and U.S. Highway 192, are not in the CFX system.

Still, Goodson indicated the intent of the bill may be to get CFX to extend into Brevard. He noted state studies that showed increased transportation needs between Brevard and Orange, and said the Brevard County Board of Commissioners and regional transportation planning commission both voted to support the bill.

State Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park concurred, declaring, “I think it will be a benefit to us to have you join us.”

Brightline, Indian River County duke it out before House panel

Brightline railroad supporters and Treasure Coast counties opposing the higher-speed train planned from Orlando to Miami debated their cases Wednesday before a Florida House committee, showing the high stakes of their fight.

Officials from the train company, and two other train companies, were joined by officials of one of the counties, Indian River for a panel discussion before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, pitting the local’s concerns for safety versus the companies assurances that safety already is addressed.

“This is going to be a tremendous benefit to the entire state of Florida,” Brightline General Counsel Myles Tobin declared.

“It is a railroad, and the cost of doing business is to make it safe,” declared Kate Cotner, assistant county attorney for Indian River County.

At stake is Brightline’s ability to upgrade a rail line and operate privately-run passenger trains from West Palm Beach to Orlando, which will traverse four counties at speeds up to 110 mph without actually stopping in any of them. Two of those counties, Indian River and Martin, are suing, and pushing the Florida Legislature for safety measures beyond what Brightline has deemed necessary.

That fight is a large reason why Brightline has thrown out its timetable for completing the construction and beginning the service. At one time the company anticipated being able to do so late this year. None of the construction has started, and now the service indefinitely delayed.

Also complicating matters are bills pushed by Treasure Coast lawmakers that would require some additional safety measures – universal four-arm crossing gates at all road crossings, strategic fencing, and other items.

The committee was not explicitly hearing House Bill 269, introduced by Republican state Reps. Erin Grall of Vero Beach and MaryLynn Magar of Tequesta. But that bill and its Senate counterpart, Senate Bill 386 from Republican state Sen. Debbie Mayfield of Melbourne were often cited by railroad officials as a concern, and by the opponents as important, and both Grall and Magar took part in the discussions.

Cotner said the bill would require four-gate crossings, and fencing where the Florida Department of Transportation deemed it necessary, and that the department was on board with the bill.

Tobin pointed out that all crossing guard devices would adhere to federal railroad standards, and that Brightline was going way beyond by including such technologies as positive train control, a high-tech, computerized-sensor system not yet in use on any other American railroad. As for the fencing, he said studies show it’s a waste of money, that it does not stop trespassers from entering rails or getting hit by trains.

He also predicted the bills, if approved, would be preempted by federal law.

Brightline intends to open up the southern phase of its service, linking West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami on 27 miles or track later this year. But those trains would run no faster than 79 mph. The 129-mile phase between West Palm and Cocoa would allow for 110 mph trains, and the 38 miles Cocoa to Orlando International Airport the trains would allow trains to run as fast as 125 mph.

“We are going to provide a unique service in the United States, in the sense that it is a privately-funded, privately-operated passenger service,” Tobin said.

There are no stops planned for the counties of Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard. The Indian River contingent participating in the discussion noted that their counties will be facing unique, new risks affecting traffic and emergency first responders, without getting any service.

“Because you’re going to be running trains at 110 mph, this is a risk that doesn’t exist now, and this is something everyone needs to be concerned about,” said George Gavalla, a railroad safety consultant hired by Indian River.


First responders suffering from PTSD addressed in Vic Torres bill

The Pulse nightclub massacre took its toll on at least one Orlando cop who responded that horrible morning and state Sen. Victor Torres said he’s convinced it’s time the state recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a covered disability for Workers Compensation claims.

Torres filed Senate Bill 1088 Wednesday night to make first responders suffering from PTSD and similar afflictions eligible for lost wages while recovering from a mental disability.

The Orlando Democrat said he was moved to do so by the case of Orlando Police Officer Gerry Realin, as pursued by his wife Jessica Realin. After helping remove some of the 49 bodies of people murdered, and assist the 53 people wounded, in the Pulse nightclub on June 12, the officer struggled through a couple of weeks of work before he had to go home and seek attention for mental illness, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Currently first responders must have a corresponding physical injury to qualify for mental injury Workers Comp. Realin was turned down. Friends have opened a GoFundMe.com account to help as he recovers.

Torres, a retired police detective with the New York Transit Authority, said he knows all too well the toll that officers, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders often pay for handling tragedies; how they often try to keep it to themselves; and how, when they do seek help, at least in Florida, they can lose wages for their work-related disability.

“The least we can do for those who put their lives on the line every day to protect the citizens of this state is make sure they have the ability to get the treatment they need and provide for their families while they are recovering from any physical or mental illnesses,” Torres said.

Currently there is no companion bill in the house, though Torres has spoken to Republican state Rep. Mike Miller, whose district includes Pulse, about carrying one in that chamber.

Torres office reported that his bill has the backing of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Police Benevolent Association, the Florida Professional Firefighters, the Florida State Firemen’s Association and the Florida Fire Chiefs Association.

And the Realins.

“On behalf of the First Responders of Florida, the spouses and families of First Responders and my beloved husband, Officer Gerry Realin, I want to thank Senator Victor Torres for filing SB 1088,” Mrs. Realin stated in a news release issued by the Florida House Democrats. “This measure truly has the first responders in mind, and recognizes that they, too, deserve our support.”

‘Arnold Palmer Expressway’ designation gets committee nod

Driving like Arnold Palmer may soon take on a new meaning in Orlando.

The Senate Transportation Committee approved a bill Tuesday to rename about four miles of State Road 408 as the “Arnold Palmer Expressway,” honoring the legendary golfer and longtime Orlando snowbird resident who died last September.

“As you know Arnold Palmer was not only a larger-than-life figure in golf, he was an incredibly beloved and incredibly charitable member of the Central Florida community,” said state Sen. David Simmons, the Longwood Republican who sponsored Senate Bill 480.

“And as you know, the Arnold Palmer Invitational is March 13-19, 2017, and in preparation for that, this bill is one we’re hoping, since it only has one committee of reference, will recognize the awesome, awesome work and the individual that Arnold Palmer was,” Simmons added. “I’m hoping you can support 480 so that it can be passed the first week of session and be part of Central Florida before the invitational.”

There was no hesitation. With two potential speakers waiving, the entire matter took less than three minutes before the committee voted unanimously to report the bill favorably to the full senate.

The bill, however, technically would not take effect until July 1, as currently written. It would name the stretch of SR 408 from Kirkman Road to Clarke Road after the golfing great, who lived just south of that stretch in the Dr. Phillips area of Orlando. That highway already is designated by the Central Florida Expressway Authority as the East-West Expressway.

Orange County moving forward on I-Drive pedicab regulation

With a rapid increase of pedicabs that apparently now include many that are currently unregulated, Orange County officials laid out a proposed ordinance Tuesday to require permits, insurance, inspections, and enforcement along International Drive.

The ordinance is largely supported by a handful of pedicab companies that already are operating under a separate set of rules and permits that give them authorization to serve the Orange County Convention Center. It’s also being pushed by International Drive businesses and the convention center.

Any pedicab operating outside of the convention center property is not regulated, and both county officials and a couple of pedicab company owners, notably John Forgione of 5 Star Pedicab, contended that slipshod competitors show up with unsafe cabs and unsafe driving and charge unfair fares, especially whenever there’s a big convention in town.

However, disagreements are arising as county officials try to deal with both economics and technologies affecting the scores of bicycle taxis operating in the county’s convention and tourism district.

Among them are questions of whether the county should cap the number of permits, much as taxi companies are limited by the number of cab medallions available, whether small electric motors – dubbed “driver assist devices” – would be banned, how fares might be defined if drivers work largely on tips, and how much leeway county and law enforcement officials might have to close streets to pedicabs either temporarily or permanently.

“International Drive is the street we’re on. So if we’re not allowed on International Drive for any period of time, it would put us out of business,” said Catherine Ojeda, owner of Redi Pedi Cab Company, which runs up to 20 pedicabs in the area.

The proposal, as outlined Tuesday before the Orange County Board of Commissioners by County Transportation Supervisor Krista Barber, would pedicab companies and drivers to get county permits to operate anywhere in the International Drive Improvement District, which stretches from just north of Sand Lake Road to SeaWorld, and includes the convention center and numerous hotels and attractions. They would need liability insurance and meet equipment and safety requirements.

The county is proposing reducing the minimum age of drivers from 21 to 18, to allow for more college student-aged drivers. They must undergo background checks and adhere to codes of conduct and dress. The sheriff’s office and the county program administrator would enforce rules and could levy fines, impound vehicles, revoke permits, and make arrests.

New Orange County animal shelter would cost $25-35 million

Facing the increasingly obvious conclusion that its 30-year-old animal services shelter is no longer adequate, Orange County is moving ahead with plans to replace it, but a new one could cost up to $35 million and take several years.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners heard that news Tuesday while also reviewing information that showed the shelter on Conroy Road is booming both in the numbers of stray dogs and cats it houses and in the numbers that are placed for adoption.

But $35 million?

“It is going to be costly; we know that,” said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. “It’s going to be more expensive than we anticipated. But for the long run, the long-range standpoint, I think this is definitely the right way to go.”

Officials have no clear explanation for why so many dogs and cats wind up there – with an average daily count of over 400. But the adoptions’ numbers indicate the increasing value that society is placing on adopting shelter pets, and the radical repurposing of the animal services department, which once was principally of controlling stray animals, including euthanasia.

“The community now expects us to be a full-service adoption center,” said Sara Flynn-Kramer, the county’s manager of capital projects.

The 25,000-square-foot warehouse-like building with no air conditioning and, until recent modifications with ventilation many considered inadequate, with indoor summer-time temperatures often in the 90s.

For now the county is spending $450,000 to improve the ventilation and other upgrades in the dog building and plans to spend $475,000 to add air conditioning and other improvements to the cat building. Both should be done by the summer or fall of this year.

Last year the facility took in 18,896 animals, down 18 percent over the past five years; and arranged 8,348 adoptions, up 86 percent over the last five years. Another 2,004 pets were reclaimed by owners.

After considering alternatives, Flynn-Kramer said the most likely answer will be to build a new center at the location of the current one. The $25 million to $35 million estimate is based on the square footage costs incurred when Broward County built and opened a new center recently, she said. Broward serves a larger population and a larger area, but Orange brought in, and adopted, far more animals, she said.

County Administrator Ajit Lalchandani said planning money for the new facility likely will be programmed into the 2018 fiscal year capital budget, and construction would not start before 2o19 or 2020.

Chancery High gives hope, future for struggling Orange County students

Estefania Rivera enrolled in her zoned public high school as the new girl, but the bullying became too much for her to handle.

Merciless in their torment, the other kids “mobbed and harassed” her every day. It reached the point where Rivera didn’t want to go to school anymore.

“I had no friends,” she said. “So, they thought there was something wrong with me.”

So, Rivera just quit going to school. When the bus came, she’d wait outside. When her parents were gone, she’d just go back inside and watch TV and do “anything except school.”  She eventually just dropped out.

Eventually, she realized she must do something to continue her education; a year later she went back to her high school and tried to re-enroll. But Rivera was too far behind in her studies to graduate within a reasonable amount of time in a traditional high school setting.

That was where Chancery High School comes in. Chancery is one of several charter schools operated by Accelerated Learning Solutions (ALS), which is hired by nonprofit boards to run dropout prevention and recovery charter schools.

At Chancery, students who have fallen behind in Orange County public schools can work at their own pace with the assistance of certified teachers. The school is set up for students who, for whatever reason, have fallen so far behind in studies a chance to complete their education.

Coming to Chancery, students voluntarily sign agreement consent for enrollment; parents must sign off as well if the child is under 18.

The bulk of students enrolling are around 18 years old, have typically fallen 4 to 5 years behind grade level in reading and math and have far-below-average GPAs and number of course credits.

Forty-nine percent of the student body at ALS schools in Orange County are pregnant, parenting or responsible for the care of a sibling(s); 44 percent have part-time or full-time jobs to help support themselves or their families.

Angela Whitford-Narine, president of Chancery and other regional schools under the ALS banner, says the school’s ethos is that not every student learns at the same pace. ALS schools offer flexible schedules that help meet student’s needs, she said.

“It’s 100 percent symbiotic with the authorizing school district,” Whitford-Narine said. “Education is not one-size-fits-all. Some students need something different.”

Whitford-Narine boasts that her principals and staff know every student’s name. As she walked the halls and inspected various classrooms — each full of students quietly and diligently learning on computers — she spoke to students personally, using a casual, friendly manner. They all responded in kind.

Rivera said for her, the system works better — she’s not bullied anymore and her attendance is up. She feels better, also, when working at her own pace.

“The kids are mature here,” she said. “There is no bullying.”

After graduation, Rivera wants to attend a technical school and study nursing or veterinary studies.

“I like helping people,” she said. “I like making them feel better.”

Chancery strives to make life easier for those students whose life circumstances don’t allow them the free time to finish their high school education as normal. Whitford-Narine said some of her students are single parents, while others need to care for a sick or disabled parent or a younger sibling.

Some, Whitford-Narine added, can’t make it to school on time because they must wait until siblings get on the bus to go to school, since no one else in the family is available.

Briuna Glover, 18, is the mother of a two-year-old girl; she found Chancery to be a refreshing alternative to balance completing her education with raising a daughter. She’s a member of the schools parenting assistance program, and the school’s flexible schedule allows her to get up and take care of her daughter in the morning, then go to school in the afternoon.

“She’s not a morning person,” Glover said of her daughter. “She doesn’t like to get up so early.”

While Glover attends school, her daughter is at a nearby day care with the childcare fees paid for as part of the parenting program offered at Chancery.

For others, Chancery is simply a better option.

Maria Benenche, 19, didn’t have a dramatic life circumstance preventing her from going to school. She just wasn’t engaged at her previous school.

“I didn’t take school seriously,” she said. “I had a lot of friends. It was hard to concentrate.”

A health problem forced her to miss a significant portion of her junior year. When she came back, the best option for her instead was Chancery.

And the different opportunities offered there, such as more one-on-one time with instructors, have helped her be more interested in learning.

“Regular school classes are 45 minutes,” she said. “There’s no time to take in what you learned. I didn’t retain much. Now if I need help, I can have one-on-one time with a teacher. My friends and family have told me I’m more serious and more determined since I came here.”

When she finishes, she says she wants to go to college to study photography — preferably somewhere on the coast.

Eric Eisnaugle applies for 5th District Court of Appeal opening

State Rep. Eric Eisnaugle has declared himself an applicant for the open seat on the 5th District Court of Appeal.

Eisnaugle, 40, of Orlando, is an attorney with Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell in Orlando. The Republican served two terms representing House District 40 before stepping aside in 2012 when redistricting put him and Steve Precourt in the same district.

Eisnaugle ran again and won in 2014 in House District 44. That made him a freshman with two terms experience and he campaigned for the speaker designates post for his class, but lost.

He was not immediately available for comment Tuesday morning.

He is among 18 applicants for the vacancy in the Daytona Beach-based 5th District, including nine circuit judges from Orange, Brevard, Volusia, Brevard and Alachua counties.

They all seek to succeed C. Alan Lawson, whom Gov. Rick Scott appointed to the Florida Supreme Court in December.

Among his committee appointments, Eisnaugle is vice chairman of the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

The other applicants include circuit judges Alice Blackwell, Lisa Munyon, Heather Rodriguez, Patricia Strowbridge, Gregb Tynan and Keith White of Orange County; Circuit Judge John Harris of Brevard County; Circuit Judge Donna Keim of Alachua County; Circuit Judge Randall Rowe of Volusia County; Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberta Bodnar of the Middle District of Florida; attorney Stephen Chong of Orange County; Senior Assistant County Attorney David D’Agata of Marion County; Assistant General Counsel Craig Feiser of Jacksonville; Florida Polytechnic University Associate General Counsel Nicole Jackson of Polk County; attorney Margaret Kozan of Winter Park; attorney William Ponall of Maitland; and Office of Public Defender Appellate Division Chief Nancy Ryan of Volusia County.

Blackwell, Bodnar and Strowbridge recently applied for the state Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice James E.C. Perry. That position eventually went to Lawson.

The Fifth District Judicial Nominating Commission will conduct interviews on March 6 and 7.

19-year-old Devin Perez files for House 28 as Democrat

Saying he is deeply concerned about social inequality, 19-year-old Devin Guillermo Perez has filed to run in 2018 as a Democrat in House District 28, for a seat which is opening up with the term-limiting of Republican incumbent state Rep. Jason Brodeur.

“There’s no room right now for social inequality,” he said. “We’re being lied to. We need to establish a level equal playing field for everyone. And I feel like the best way to bring about that change is to be the change.”

Perez, who lives in Oviedo, is a an on-line student at the University of Florida studying criminology and pre-law. He was raised in Miami, with Puerto Rican and Vietnamese ancestry.

He said he was inspired into politics in part after attending a talk by U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, the Vietnamese-American Democrat from Winter Park whose Florida’s 7th Congressional District includes Oviedo. Murphy upset longtime Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica in a district with an evolving voter base, one that is becoming younger and more diverse, more reflecting herself, and Perez.

Perez said he also has strong feelings about promoting education and the environment. He said he joined the Seminole [County] Democrats and “next spring we’re going to start fundraising.”

Perez is the first candidate to file in HD 28 for the 2018 election.

He joins a trend of very young House candidates in Central Florida. The 2018 general election would come 20 days after his 21st birthday.

Last fall State Rep. Amber Lynn Mariano, a student at the University of Central Florida from Hudson, was elected as a Republican in House District 36, 21 days after her 21st birthday.

In 2012, state Rep. Jennifer Sullivan from Mount Dora was 23 when elected as a Republican in House District 31.

Kennedy Space Center back in launch business — this time for business

Kennedy Space Center is back in the rocket-launching business – and this time it’s really a business.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off into space from historic Launch Complex 39A Sunday morning, the first launch from Kennedy since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

This was a business launch in almost every sense, except in purpose. The Dragon capsule sent into orbit by the rocket is full of 5,500 pounds of equipment and goods for the International Space Station.

SpaceX is trucking the goods into space on a NASA contract, and it began the mission from a NASA-owned launch pad, but this is a private business that has leased the launch pad and which is hauling the goods entirely for business.

The rocket launch appeared perfect, blasting upward and into cloudy sky, disappearing 10 seconds after liftoff.

“And liftoff of the Falcon 9 to the space station, on the first commercial launch from Kennedy Space Center’s historic pad 39!” announcer George Diller declared.

Until now NASA’s launchpads were used only for government rockets, and the last one that went up was the one boosting the Space Shuttle Atlantis into space on its final mission in July 2011.

NASA and Kennedy officials decided the best – really only – use for its billions of dollars in launch infrastructure for most of the future might be to support all the emerging private space companies such as SpaceX. The California company won a bidding competition in 2013 and signed a 20-year lease for exclusive use of 39A, and a year later began rebuilding it to accommodate the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

NASA still has 39A’s twin, Launch Complex 39B, which the space agency is rebuilding to accommodate its next generation big rocket, the Space Launch System.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the cost of the 39A rebuild is approaching $100 million and likely will top $100 million before it is fully outfitted to accommodate astronauts. Starting in probably 2019 SpaceX will be launching astronauts from there to the International Space Station.

So Sunday’s launch is the beginning of a new era.

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