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Riding I-4 with Turanchik: He can dream, but can he be mayor?

On a weekday morning alongside a zillion other motorists, Ed Turanchik is driving east from Tampa toward Orlando on the hellish highway called Interstate 4.

He will drive past Dinosaur World on one side, a row of Airstream trailers stuck nose-down in the ground as roadside art on the other, past endless drive-throughs and theme park come-ons. At one point, a car made to look like a giant lobster will render him momentarily speechless.

But that's later. Right now he is headed to a meeting and, given the legendary I-4 traffic, late.

From behind the wheel of his 14-year-old Volvo, Turanchik sees something else, too. Sure, he's got that same ribbon of brake lights in front of him as everyone else, that endless watch for the possibility of cars suddenly and inexplicably stopped ahead.

But here is also the future. As in, high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. As in people taking the train instead of the car to work, to Disney, to sports events, to airports. Imagine.

Turanchik, a former Hills­borough County commissioner and likely candidate for Tampa mayor, has seen possibility before. He saw it when he led the unsuccessful push to bring the Olympics to Tampa. He saw so much possibility in bringing rail to the region that a newspaper columnist started calling him Commissioner Choo Choo.

While Hillsborough's bid to get voters to pay a penny more in sales tax for a transportation package that includes light rail gets decided in November, high-speed rail is more than a possibility. It's as solid as $1.25 billion in federal funding this past January, solid as plans to have it running by 2015 if all goes well. They hope to begin readying the 84-mile corridor in April with construction in 2012. They're working on the next round of federal funds.

Turanchik is the public outreach guy for the project and can click off not-so-fun I-4 stats: about 10 crashes a day and an average of one fatality every 10 days.

Critics of high-speed rail say it will shave only a half-hour off the trip. "Yeah," he says, "on a good day." They are not always good. Just the other day, an excruciating traffic jam turned out to be caused by rubberneckers intent on observing on the side of the road the spectacle of an old tire lying there.

As we chat, he is suddenly taken aback: A Volkswagen going by, he says, "has a 12-foot lobster glommed to the top of it," a moving ad for a seafood restaurant. "You get the full monty out here," he says.

As he tools along, I ask about mayoral possibility. The race already includes Tampa City Council Chairman Tom Scott, Hillsborough Commissioner Rose Ferlita and former City Council member Bob Buckhorn, who seems to have been running since I-4 was a cow pasture. It could get even more interesting should former Mayor Dick Greco quit teasing and actually run. And then there's the rumored big dog, former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, who could run away with the whole thing. Or not.

"I think the whole political world is so scrambled right now," Turanchik says, headed for International Drive. "I think conventional wisdom is shattered."

As for him? You might say he's a dreamer, the kind of guy who gets excited about possibility. How this might merge with a bid to be chief executive of a city, I'm betting we'll see.

"I'm thinking about it," he says, and drives on.

Riding I-4 with Turanchik: He can dream, but can he be mayor? 08/19/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 19, 2010 7:55pm]
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