Is SunRail the right choice for Central Florida? – Part One

200px-SunRailLogoThis is Part One of a two-part series on the SunRail project in Central Florida. While many are happy that some form of passenger rail has finally reached the Orlando area, it the type of service they are providing (which is commuter rail) beneficial? Today’s section will look at the history of the light rail/commuter rail debate in Central Florida. Part Two will examine the cost effectiveness of the new SunRail project.

Over the last couple of decades, the debate regarding whether a mass transit rail system should be implemented in Central Florida has had its ebbs and flows. With progressives advocating for mass rail, and conservative taxpayer watchdog groups fighting against any mass transit proposals, the Orlando Metropolitan Area remained without a rail system. But in 2004, with the completion of the first Commuter Rail Environmental Assessment report, the idea of mass rail transit in was becoming more of a reality. After a number of preliminary project approvals, the new mass transit project, called SunRail, received full funding from the Federal Transit Administration in July 2011. On May 1st, 2014, SunRail will start offering transit to fare-paying passengers.

The SunRail project is a 61-mile commuter rail service that will provide transportation between DeLand in Volusia County to Poinciana in Osceola County, with a number of stops in between, including downtown Orlando. But is commuter rail the best mode of rail transportation in Central Florida? SunRail will be unique, as one of the only commuter rail systems in the nation that provide sole service to both suburban and inner-city communities. In most cases, commuter rail provides service to the suburbs, while other modes of transportation, such as light rail, rapid bus transit or other forms of transit, provide service to the inner-city communities, which then link to the commuter rail system for extended travel. Therefore, is the SunRail model the best to service the needs to Central Florida?

During the population booms in Orlando during the 1980s and early 1990s, Central Florida’s main highway, Interstate 4 (or I-4), was becoming highly congested. As a result, debate started as to solutions to the growing traffic problems in Central Florida. The main argument that was made was that local and state governments should provide “ring roads” around the Orlando Metropolitan area. It was argued that this would not only decrease traffic on I-4, but would also spur growth outside of the city center and along I-4. As a result, the Central Florida Greenway and Western Beltway were constructed.

But even before these roads were built, many had also considered light rail as an alternative mode of transportation. In January of 1992, the Central Florida Commuter Rail Authority (CFCRA) released plans outlining a proposal for a light rail system. The goal of the system was to link downtown Orlando to Seminole County. The plan would have cost $600 million, and would have used existing CSX rail tracks that run parallel to I-4. The CFCRA projected a daily unlinked ridership of 27,000 daily, with state and federal grants providing most of the initial procurement funding. Even though the City of Orlando approved the light rail project in 1999, the Orange County Commission rejected the proposal. In the wake of this defeat, another light rail proposal was introduced by Orlando mayor Glenda Hood, which would reduce the cost of the rail project to $325 million, with the federal government paying for $228.8 million. But this proposal eventually died as well.

In 2001, new studies looked into the possibility of bringing light-rail back to Central Florida. The Orange County Commission approved $200,000 to conduct a study in cooperation with other counties that would benefit from a light rail system. But Osceola and Seminole Counties did not approve their $100,000 share of the study and the project died. Around this time, focus started on the possibility of a commuter rail system for Central Florida. In 2001, Congressman John Mica (R-Winter Park) started talking to citizens in his district about a commuter rail system from Volusia County down to Osceola County. He stated that a commuter rail system was the cheapest alternative and would have “a startup cost of $50 million to $100 million, depending on the complexity of the system”. He also argued that a light-rail system would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Mica stated that the federal government would “likely pick up 75% of the costs”. In October of 2001, $1.5 million was put toward a study of a commuter rail system between DeLand and Kissimmee, using the same existing CSX tracks that were in the 1992 light rail proposal. Early estimates regarding the costs of the system went from as low as $225 million to as high as $355 million, which is a far cry from the $50 million to $100 million that Mica stated early in the year.

Eventually, the commuter rail alternative became the most popular option. In 2007, the preliminary engineering phase began on SunRail. In the summer of 2007, all counties and municipalities involved with the project approved their participation, which would eventually lead to being responsible for operations and maintenance at a future date. But as the project moved forward, projections by the Federal Transit Administration (or FTA) started to change. Original ridership figures showed around 7,500 weekday riders, but that number was reduced to 4,300 in 2011. Also, the project cost has jumped to $1.2 billion, much higher than Mica’s original estimate of $50 million in 2001. As of April of 2014, SunRail is on schedule to accept fare-paying customers for its May 1st, 2014 launch date.

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