Is SunRail the right choice for Central Florida? – Part Two.

200px-SunRailLogoHere is Part Two of the SunRail article, which will look at the cost effectiveness of this system compared to other systems of comparable sizes.

Since the main goal of this research is to determine whether the SunRail project is economically sound for Central Florida, the units of analysis for this research will be other metropolitan areas with roughly the same population as the Central Florida metropolitan area. In addition to population size, only metropolitan areas that have experienced at least 3% growth between 2000 and 2010 will be included. This is primarily for two reasons. First, since Central Florida is experiencing growth, this research would like to compare other metropolitan areas with similar growth. Second, metropolitan areas which have experienced a decline in population might have previous infrastructure that is no longer needed by a decreasing population. Cities like Cleveland and St. Louis might have built infrastructure that suited their needs years ago, but are now no longer practical. Below is a list of metropolitan areas that will be examined, as well as their population according to the 2010 US Census.

Metropolitan Area Population
Tampa, FL 2.9 million
Denver, CO 2.7 million
Charlotte, NC 2.3 million
Portland, OR 2.3 million
San Antonio, TX 2.3 million
Sacramento, CA 2.3 million
Las Vegas, NV 2.0 million
Columbus, OH 2.0 million
Indianapolis, IN 2.0 million
San Jose, CA 1.9 million
Austin, TX 1.9 million
Orlando, FL 2.3 million


Once the cities have been selected, this research will then shift toward examining the transit bus and rail transit systems within these metropolitan areas. The main focus will be on light rail and commuter rail for each city. Initially, bus rapid transit was going to be looked at as a possible alternative. But there is a lack of data on this mode of transit. As of 2012, only three rapid bus transit services operate in the United States, with one of those being in Orlando itself. But the Orlando LYMMO bus rapid transit is a fare-free service, making it much harder to examine. The other two rapid bus transit systems also lack fare information in the National Transit Database (which provides the data for this project). Also, services such as demand response and paratransit will not be examined due to their unique features and limited clientele.

The main database that will be used for this research is the National Transit Database provided by the Federal Transit Administration (or FTA), which provides a number of different statistics regarding mass transit in the United States. For this research, the operating and maintenance budgets data will be used to determine the operating costs of each mode of transportation being examined. The data provided is from 2012 and is the most up-to-date data provided by the FTA.

As far as revenues provided for these modes of transportation, this research will again examine the National Transit Database by the FTA, which provides fare revenues for each mode of transportation. This data will then compare the fare revenues to the operation and maintenance budgets and determine the level of funding that fare-paying customers contribute to the overall operational budget. It must be noted here that fares alone do not represent all of the revenue coming into a particular mode of transportation.  Subsidies from local companies, advertising and other revenue-generation sources play a role in transit funding.  Therefore, the total fare revenue will be much less than expected.

In addition to the budgets, this research will examine the ridership of each mode of transportation. This data is provided by the American Public Transportation Association (or APTA). The APTA data for this research is also from 2012, which should work well with the data provided by the FTA. After comparing the operating and maintenance budgets to fare revenues, the projected ridership will be used to help determine whether commuter rail is the best possible mode of transportation for Central Florida. The FTA has already projected SunRail to have a weekly daily ridership of over 4,300 by 2030. Also, the Florida Department of Transportation has projected the operating and maintenance budget to be around $27.3 million once local governments take control of the operating and maintenance budgets. These figures allow us to examine SunRail in a comparative manner to other commuter and light rail systems that are being studied in this research.

Looking at the metropolitan areas that have been chosen, five of the eleven areas have some form of light rail system (Denver, Charlotte, Portland, Sacramento and San Jose). Only two metropolitan areas have commuter rail systems, which are San Jose and Austin. In the case of San Jose, the commuter rail system services a number of counties, as well as the San Francisco area, and is linked to other rail transit systems. The Austin commuter rail system is similar to SunRail, as it is the only rail mode of transportation provided to the community.

First, let’s examine the light rail option. Table 2 shows each metropolitan light rail system in the areas that are being examined, as well as their operating and maintenance budgets (also known as O&M), daily unlinked ridership, fare revenue, and what percentage of the fares taken in by light rail covers the overall O&M budget.

Metro Ridership O&M Fares % of Fares to O&M
Denver 69,300 $68,454,319 $28,679,679 41.9%
Charlotte 15,500 $17,537,021 $3,793,166 21.6%
Portland 132,800 $99,528,946 $43,069,976 43.2%
Sacramento 47,500 $45,528,946 $14,507,772 31.9%
San Jose 32,600 $61,685,649 $9,228,070 14.7%


Looking at the results, ridership on the light rail system is substantially higher than the projected 4,300 that is expected for SunRail. The 1992 study, which showed that light rail would bring in an estimated 27,000 passengers daily, seems to give an accurate assessment of light rail projections when compared to similar sized metropolitan areas. Even with that being said, the results of light rail in comparison to fare-paying passengers differs substantially. Both the Denver and Portland systems have a high fare-paying base, with both being over 40% of O&M budgets. But the numbers do drop quite significantly after these two examples, with San Jose’s light rail system performing the poorest of all. But in the case of San Jose, its system is heavily subsidized by companies such as Google, which might result in a lower number of fare-paying passengers.

Table 3 looks at the two commuter rail systems, and uses the same information that was provided in Table 2.

Metro Ridership O&M Fares % of Fares to O&M
San Jose 2,500 $12,206,566 $4,196,216 34.4%
Austin 3,500 $11,358,085 $2,265,523 20.0%


As we can see, ridership numbers are substantially lower for commuter rail than for light rail. Therefore, the projected total ridership of 4,300 for SunRail seems to be an accurate assessment of the projected ridership. When examining commuter rail, the San Jose system does quite well. But we must remember that the San Jose system connects to a number of different rail systems throughout the San Francisco Bay area. The example that is closest to the SunRail model is Austin. Unlike the SunRail model, the Austin model is much smaller (32 miles compared to 61 for SunRail). Still, daily ridership number is only 800 less than the SunRail numbers, so this should provide for a decent comparison.

As we look at the projected operating budget for SunRail, it is substantially higher than that of Austin’s Capital MetroRail. SunRail projected their O&M to be around $27 million once the local authorities take control of the entire project after seven years. This is much higher than the $11.4 million O&M that Austin is currently operating. Also, with SunRail’s projected daily ridership being somewhat similar to the Austin Capital MetroRail ridership, there can possibly be a large gap between O&M and fare-paying customers. Austin currently has 20% of its O&M covered by fare-paying passengers. With a much higher O&M and not much difference in daily ridership, SunRail fare-paying passengers might only pay a small percentage of the O&M budget.

Finally, this research will look at the bus systems within all of these metropolitan areas. Table 4 provides the same information as Table 2 and Table 3 for buses.

Metro Ridership O&M Fares % of Fares to O&M
Las Vegas 167,800 $124,110,365 $65,911,764 53.11%
Orlando 87,900 $83,783,257 $26,945,766 32.16%
Denver 210,400 $301,669,047 $82,690,545 27.41%
Charlotte 67,200 $78,994,776 $19,914,181 25.21%
Portland 201,500 $230,726,059 $56,332,405 24.42%
Tampa 46,900 $54,927,727 $13,230,433 24.09%
Indianapolis 33,000 $44,642,606 $10,358,282 23.20%
Austin 105,300 $110,289,057 $15,785,352 23.17%
Columbus 62,200 $84,830,872 $19,283,371 22.73%
Sacramento 43,000 $68,808,942 $14,456,376 21.01%
San Antonio 142,300 $132,163,621 $22,571,527 17.02%
San Jose 160,200 $218,163,621 $28,515,679 13.07%


These results show that the Orlando area bus system does quite well it comes to fare-paying passengers paying for the O&M budget. What is also of interest is that Las Vegas is substantially ahead of the rest in this category. With Orlando and Las Vegas being the two top tourist destinations in the United States, as well as the top two areas on this list, could this show that extended bus service, as well as bus rapid transit, is a more viable alternative to rail transit? Controlling for buses used for tourism could be an important factor in determining what type of transit system a metropolitan area should provide. Unfortunately, this would require extensive research of the bus systems in Orlando and Las Vegas to determine the impact of tourism on bus transit. While looking at the impact of bus transit in relation to rail transit was an ambitious goal for this research, the data which has been provided cannot give an accurate assessment of the impact of tourism on ridership numbers. It should be noted, however, that the SunRail system will service the Universal Studios, Sea World and Disney World attractions with bus service provided from the closest SunRail stations.

Over the last 25 years, rail transit has been a highly debated topic in the Central Florida area. But has SunRail been the answer to this debate? As a result of the findings of this study, commuter rail seems to be a risky option for Central Florida. Looking at the Austin Capital MetroRail system, there might be serious budgetary problems with SunRail, with O&M costs being substantially higher and its Austin counterpart.

What is also troubling is how the numbers have changed for SunRail over the last few years. The first report into SunRail suggested that there would be 7,400 daily passengers utilizing the services. Those numbers have now been reduced by the FTA to 4,300 daily passengers. In addition, the cost of the project is much higher. Congressman Mica said that it would cost around $50 million to $100 million in 2001. Now, the budget is at $1.2 billion for the project. Basically, all the projection numbers have been moving in the wrong direction.

This research primarily delved into the budgetary aspects of the SunRail project, comparing O&M budgets to fare-paying customer receipts. But this is only one factor that should be looked at when determining if the SunRail project was best for Central Florida. Many questions still remain as to how rail transit will impact Central Florida. Unfortunately, the decision to have a commuter rail system instead of a light rail system has already been made, and future transit developments must be based on the commuter rail system.

Even though commuter rail does not seem to be a viable option, what about light rail? Stand-alone light rail systems have differing results when looking at O&M budgets compared to fare-paying customers, but the results seem to be more positive than their commuter rail counterparts. In the case of Denver and Portland, the systems seem to be successful. Even Charlotte, with a much lower ridership, performs slightly better when comparing O&M budgets and fare-paying customers to its Austin commuter rail counterpart. While the operating budgets of light rail systems are substantially higher than commuter rail, there are substantially more fare-paying customers as well.

While this research also sought to determine if bus rapid transit was a better option than commuter or light rail, there was not enough statistical data to make this determination. Therefore, any conclusion regarding BRT would be purely hypothetical.

The main reason Central Florida needs to have a rail transit system, it has been argued, is to alleviate traffic in the region, particularly on I-4. While this is not the focus of the study, it does seem that light rail would have also been a better alternative. With an estimated 27,000 people off of Central Florida roads using a light rail system in comparison to only 4,300 using commuter rail, the light rail option seems more applicable to the goal of alleviating traffic congestion. This, along with the budgetary pitfalls or the commuter rail, might be a be a disastrous result for Central Florida, as tax payers might be footing the bill for an expensive rail transit project while, on the other hand, not solving the traffic problems in Central Florida.


One comment

  1. the old guy sitting on the green bench · ·

    I’ve lived here and there at time or another. I’ve lived and visited cities that are renown for their mass transit systems. Wiggle your nose Mr. Bunny in the Tampa Bay region. Instant traffic jam on each and every going either north or east or perhaps even south. Can you say road rage? Now picture a interurban rail system that can move large numbers of people rapidly out of the path of the hurricane to come.

    Another question for ya? If we had this system does mean I don’t get to sit on the 19 parking lot?

    Oh well … where’s my pipe??? Here they come walking down the road.


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