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State of Florida begins regulating Disney World monorail

by Staff

BAY LAKE, Fla. – The Florida Department of Transportation has begun the process of regulating Walt Disney World’s monorail, eight months after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill giving the state authority to inspect and oversee the privately-owned transportation system.

Immediately after the legislation took effect July 1, News 6 began requesting public records from FDOT related to its new duties of conducting structural inspections of Disney’s 15-mile-long monorail beam and establishing minimum safety standards for operating the trains.

The agency has not yet produced any requested records, but an FDOT spokesperson told News 6 by email that work is now underway to implement the new law.

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“Being that this is the first time that the State has had oversight, FDOT is doing its due diligence to thoroughly complete the review while ensuring the safety of travelers,” said FDOT District Five Public Information Director Cindi Lane.

FDOT’s Structures Maintenance Office, which inspects hundreds of bridges and other structures across the state, has begun conducting field inspections of Disney’s monorail structure.

As part of that process, Disney has provided FDOT with safety manuals and other existing monorail documentation, Lane said.

FDOT has the legal authority to temporarily suspend monorail service during structural inspections to ensure the safety of inspectors and passengers, but it is unclear if that has happened yet.

The agency said it has not yet prepared any written reports stemming from the ongoing field inspections, which it eventually expects to conduct once every two years.

Meanwhile, News 6 has learned FDOT has not yet fulfilled a second mandate of the new state law requiring the agency to establish minimum safety standards for the monorail’s operation.

FDOT did not respond to questions from News 6 inquiring when the agency would begin the formal rulemaking process, which could potentially include an opportunity for public comment.

“The Department continues to work with Disney on necessary information for the non-structural portion of the (monorail) system,” Lane said.

The Walt Disney Company has been operating monorails for 65 years, beginning with the Disneyland Alwig Monorail System that began daily service at its California theme park in 1959. The company’s monorail fleet expanded in 1971 with the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida.

FDOT has been responsible for the oversight of government-funded railways in Florida for at least 30 years, legislative records show.

The state agency has recently overseen nine so-called “fixed-guideway transportation systems” that include people mover trams at Orlando International Airport, Tampa International Airport and Miami International Airport.

The SunRail and Tri-Rail commuter rail systems, the Jacksonville Skyway, Tampa’s TECO Line Streetcar, and Miami-Dade’s Metrorail and Metromover are also regulated by FDOT.

Florida lawmakers passed an amendment to an existing transportation bill during last year’s legislative session that put Disney World’s privately-owned monorail system under similar government supervision.

“When we have a monorail system that carries 150,000 riders a day, I think it is appropriate for the state, the Florida Department of Transportation, to oversee the safety standards for that particular mode of transportation,” said Nick DiCeglie, the Republican state senator who introduced the amendment.

Disney has accused DeSantis and state lawmakers of approving the monorail legislation in retaliation for the company opposing the 2022 Florida Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed by critics as “Don’t Say Gay.”

In a federal lawsuit filed by Disney against the governor last year seeking to block enforcement of a separate state law that altered the former Reedy Creek Improvement District, company lawyers cited language from the monorail legislation as evidence of constitutional free speech violations.

“(The) amendment was precision-engineered to target Disney alone, just as Governor DeSantis intended and previewed – imposing state oversight over only those private monorail systems located ‘within an independent special district created by local act which have boundaries within two contiguous counties,’” Disney’s lawsuit stated.

Disney’s monorail is located in a special taxing district that straddles Orange and Osceola counties.

Disney, which did not respond to emails from News 6 offering an opportunity to provide comment for this story, has not sought to repeal the monorail legislation in court.

The state law signed by DeSantis specifically requires FDOT to “adopt by rule minimum safety standards” for the privately owned monorail system.

According to a regulatory plan filed in September, FDOT indicated it will be amending an existing FDOT rule related to its oversight of fixed-guideway transportation systems.

At the time of this publication, FDOT had not yet filed any notices in the Florida Administrative Register detailing the proposed amendment and indicating whether there would be an opportunity for public comment prior to its adoption.

The existing administrative rule authorizes FDOT to use a 97-page manual establishing safety and security standards for the nine government-funded rail systems under FDOT oversight such as the Orlando International Airport tram. The manual was last updated in 2018.

FDOT has not indicated whether it expects to regulate the Disney monorail using similar standards.

According to the manual, fixed-guideway operators must submit safety plans to FDOT annually and are subject to scheduled and unscheduled onsite safety inspections.

Operators are required to notify FDOT within two hours of fatalities, injuries requiring hospitalization or property damage that exceeds $25,000.

Under the existing rule, FDOT is authorized to conduct independent investigations of any incidents and require the operators to comply with a corrective action plan prescribed by the state agency.

That corrective action may include shutting down the fixed-guideway transportation system, according to the legislation’s sponsor.

“That is going to be a last resort action,” DiCeglie said. “There would have to be some significant safety concerns in order for that monorail to be shut down.”

In 2009, Disney World monorail pilot Austin Wuennenberg was killed in when another monorail backed into his train on the Epcot line and crushed the cockpit where the 21-year-old was sitting.

Disney closed the monorail for two days and voluntarily made more than a dozen safety improvements as the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the deadly collision.

The federal agency later concluded the crash was caused by human error and Disney’s lack of standard operating procedures for reversing monorail trains.

In its final report, NTSB noted that there was no government oversight of the Disney monorail other than workplace safety regulations enforced by the

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.

“External safety oversight of public transportation systems is critical to identifying and correcting systemic safety risks that may not be readily apparent or may not be effectively addressed at the local level by a company,” NTSB stated.

DiCeglie, who is chair of the Florida Senate transportation committee, believes state lawmakers should have begun regulating Disney monorails after Wuennenberg’s death nearly 15 years ago.

“We’re going to have records and audits and corrective actions so that we can oversee exactly what is going on with that monorail system,” said DiCeglie.

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