The fact that Volusia County is ready to abandon the extension of SunRail to DeLand was news to city officials.
“They didn’t discuss it with us,” DeLand City Manager Michael Pleus said. “It was kind of a surprise, because in the meeting that led up to when the SunRail folks said they had found money for the DeLand station, we understood they were going to honor their commitments.”
The county’s announcement at a Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission meeting Aug. 29 in Orlando came on the heels of County Chair Ed Kelley’s confirmation earlier in August that a new source of $34 million in federal funds for the DeLand extension had been identified, and about six weeks after the County Council told the Florida Department of Transportation it was still on board to pay $19.3 million for the additional 11 miles of track.
Part of the problem, Kelley said at the Orlando meeting, is that the DeLand extension — now expected to cost $100 million — is projected to attract only about 200 SunRail users a day.
“We’re talking about a minimum number of $100 million for 200 people. That’s not a good investment,” Kelley said.
The county chair said Volusia County’s money would be better spent on roads.
“We have road needs, like the interchanges on Interstate 95 and State Road 472. We could do the PD&E [project design and engineering] on the bridge up over the Tomoka River,” Kelley said.
“We’re willing to forgo the Phase 2 North … with the understanding that that still could be brought up at a later date,” Kelley told colleagues on the Commuter Rail Commission.
The county also wants to end or amend its agreements to participate in the future funding of SunRail, which would have obligated the local government to pay an unknown amount of the system’s expenses each year, starting in 2021.
Preliminary figures for SunRail’s recently ended 2018-19 fiscal year show the system ran an operating deficit of approximately $40 million. Such deficits would have to be covered by the funding partners, which include Volusia as well as the counties of Seminole, Orange and Osceola, and the City of Orlando.
“Volusia County is not as wealthy as other counties,” Kelley told the Rail Commission, adding, “I’ve always been a conservative when it comes to money.”
But getting out of SunRail, partially or completely, may not be as easy as giving up the DeLand extension.
“We will have to review the agreements. But I think the other local governments and FDOT also would have to agree to at least certain matters,” Volusia County Attorney Dan Eckert told The Beacon via email.
At the Rail Commission meeting, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, the chair, and member Bob Dallari, a Seminole County commissioner, had questions about how a Volusia County exit could work, and the financial effect on the remaining four partners.
“We’ll ask the staff to get together and see what agreements need to be amended,” Dyer said.
Dallari said, “We need to understand the financial aspects of it. If you want out, that’s an issue. If you want back in at a later date, that’s an issue.”
DeLand City Manager Pleus said while he understands that SunRail comes with a big cost to the county, the city has made its own plans and investments to support the idea of SunRail in DeLand, including a facility just south of Downtown DeLand that was supposed to connect bus riders and the commuter train.
“We made that investment in the Intermodal Transit Facility,” Pleus said. “We largely got a federal grant to do it, but we built the ITF with the notion that it would help connect Votran to SunRail.”
Volusia County Council Member Barb Girtman, who represents DeLand-area District 1, said Kelley’s move wasn’t a total surprise, since he had made his position clear at a previous County Council meeting.
“On the council, he made it clear that he didn’t support it at this time and did not previously, and he is the representative that is on the [SunRail] board,” she said. “At the last County Council meeting, he said that he was going to try to reduce [Volusia’s commitment] and try to make recommendations for better uses of the funds.”
Girtman said she pushed back.
“Those were his comments. They were not that of the council, totally, but no one stood up and objected, other than comments that I made,” she said, adding, “I know many of my local constituents are still interested in SunRail to DeLand.”
As representative for a large part of West Volusia, Girtman emphasized that she feels the area should remain connected with greater Central Florida. She also said Volusia should keep its seat at the table in transportation discussions.
She doesn’t necessarily think the current proposed location for a DeLand station is ideal, however.
“I support SunRail,” Girtman said. “I mentioned that I’m not 100 percent convinced that the north end is where it should go. I think if we were able to bring it to [State Road] 472, that might be something that would be a better opportunity, but what I’m told is that the cost would be even greater, and everybody is pushing against the cost.”