(TNS) — Orange County has received a $20 million federal grant to expand its autonomous shuttle system at Lake Nona, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said Tuesday, part of a combined $62 million in transportation awards to three Florida cities.
Chao was at Lake Nona, a southeast Orlando neighborhood, along with Gov. Ron DeSantis and state transportation secretary Kevin Thibault to reveal a combined $883 million in Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants nationwide.
Orange County was among just a handful out of more than 600 applications across the U.S. to get funding.
The grant to the Orange’s Local Alternative Mobility Network Project at Lake Nona will create designated lanes for the already existing driverless bus system called Beep that kicked off in September.
The service, which currently includes two shuttles and runs 1.2 miles throughout a fixed route between Lake Nona Town Center and the village center in Laureate Park, will be expanded to include 25 miles of dedicated route lanes throughout the booming neighborhood.
Concerns have been raised over driverless vehicles, especially after an Uber autonomous vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, but proponents argue they’re safer than ones with drivers.
Central Florida has been deemed an autonomous vehicle proving ground by the U.S Department of Transportation.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has talked about eventually getting the technology downtown in its LYMMO buses, while Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings has said it could one day be used to shuttle visitors around International Drive and the Orange County Convention Center.
The Lake Nona project will also include a 21,000-square-foot “mobility hub,” which Jessi Blakley, vice president for Nona developer Tavistock, said would be equivalent to a train station.
“You’re going to be able to walk in and you’re going to be able to see where the shuttles are, what the schedules are,” Blakely said. “If you rode your bike to work, there’s going to be really nice facilities where you can shower, perhaps store your bike if you’re walking through the town center and just want to grab a shaded spot and a cold drink.”
The grant also will help pay for a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge over six-lane Lake Nona Boulevard, as well as “recovery zone” shelters along some of the 44 miles of trails and bike paths in the neighborhood.
“It’s an investment in cutting edge ... transportation for commuters and recreational users in this beautiful area,” Chao said. “Among other key benefits, this innovative project will reduce congestion, increase air quality and increase road safety.”
The decision to hold Chao’s national infrastructure funding announcement in Florida comes as the state prepares to play a major role in the 2020 presidential campaign.
A major infrastructure bill, one of Trump’s first priorities, still hasn’t gotten off the ground after Trump, a Republican, pulled his support for a Democratic bill earlier this year, and multiple White House announcements proclaiming “infrastructure week” have become a running joke in Washington.
Dyer and Demings, both Democrats, did not attend the event. Demings had a conflict with Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, and a Dyer spokeswoman was unable to confirm if Dyer was invited.
“With this ambitious project, we strive to create better mobility options,” Demings said in a statement. “This is about looking ahead to new technologies and innovative transportation solutions to ensure the future mobility of our residents and visitors."
Dyer spokeswoman Karyn Barber said the city and county applied for separate BUILD grants for different projects, but the city backed the county’s Lake Nona application and sent a letter of support.
Elsewhere in Florida, Jacksonville will get $20 million for sea terminal improvements and Miami $22 million to improve its mass transit corridor as part of the grants.
©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.