Construction could start as early as June on the first phase of the SunRail commuter train that eventually will carry commuters 61 miles through Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties. A mass transit package that Gov. Charlie Crist signed in mid-December breathed life into the $1.2-billion regional project, which had stalled after failing to win support during the Legislature’s 2008 and 2009 spring sessions.
The rail engine’s original ultra-modern design was scaled back to a more traditional, less expensive version similar to this one.
The project is expected to create thousands of jobs over the next 30 years and billions in economic activity.
The construction industry will get the biggest boost initially, in a region where the jobless rate has climbed above 11% during the recession. The Florida Department of Transportation awarded the design and construction contract in February to a joint venture led by Archer Western Contractors of Atlanta and RailWorks Track Systems of New York City.
In addition to upgrades to the tracks and signals, the project includes 17 rail stations. The first leg will run between DeBary in Volusia and Sand Lake Road in Orlando.
“This is a game-changer for our community,” says Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, part of a coalition that fought for the project. “If we’re going to be competitive, we have to have rail transportation.”
Supporters say SunRail will provide an option to driving along congested I-4 and help support the development of regional urban centers. They expect the project to help further a rail system connecting Orlando, Tampa and other points along the I-4 corridor. The state has been seeking $2.6 billion from the Obama administration’s $8-billion mass transit program.
Along with SunRail, the state approved money for south Florida’s Tri-Rail system and for setting up a statewide rail authority.
Opponents, including state Sen. Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland), said the state is paying CSX too much for the 61 miles of track. They also say the deal, which shifts freight rail traffic onto a different rail corridor, unfairly penalizes parts of the state that will see more freight trains. The commuter line, they say, is likely to have only limited ridership.
In the end, the package that won approval was perhaps stronger than the original two proposals. During the extra negotiating time, central Florida governments worked out an agreement with CSX over liability and insurance.
The delay also saw other changes: Florida Hospital, the largest employer along the route, had to come up with alternatives to its rail stop and ridership in its regional growth plan; the rail engine’s ultra-modern design gave way to a more traditional, less expensive train.
“On a daily basis, 300,000 people come downtown, and the large percentage of those commuters will now have options,” Dyer says. “Changing the mindset of getting into a car every day is a small step in the right direction.”