Leaders of five East Central Florida jurisdictions received some good financial news regarding SunRail May 28.
When they convened a virtual meeting of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission, the heads of the local governments — Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando — the officials learned the Florida Department of Transportation may push back the date for handing over SunRail to them to own, operate, maintain and pay for.
“A transition plan will be developed,” Tawny Olore promised the CFCRC.
Olore chairs the FDOT’s SunRail Technical Advisory Committee. She and the panel recommended — and the commission agreed — to hire a consultant to draft a proposal for the state agency to relinquish its role in SunRail, in favor of the local partners in the venture.
The consultant’s estimated $1.1 million tab will be paid by the SunRail partners, each of whom agreed to pay $220,000. The name of the individual or firm yet to be hired was not mentioned.
The timetable Olore outlined calls for the consultant to be hired “by November.”
The consultant, she added, will begin an in-depth collection of data on SunRail’s operations and finances.
“Will May 1 be the handoff?” asked Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.
“This extends beyond the May 2021 date,” Olore replied, adding a new date for the actual transfer of SunRail to the local partners will be determined later.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings concluded the date would be “at least delayed a year.”
Olore said the new transition date will be determined “collaboratively.”
The FDOT’s transfer of SunRail to the local partners was set for May 1, 2021.
That date marks the end of the startup period that began with the inception of SunRail weekday service May 1, 2014. Under the financial and operating agreements ratified in 2007, the FDOT would pay virtually all expenses and debts needed to support the regional rail system during the first seven years of its operations.
SunRail’s annual operating costs amount to approximately $58 million. The system is now running a $40 million annual deficit. Fares paid by riders account for about 5 percent of SunRail’s revenues. Other revenues come from advertising and fees paid by Amtrak and CSX to use the state-owned rail corridor between DeLand and Poinciana.
Federal and state grants, however, cover the bulk of the deficit.
The May 1, 2021, deadline loomed over leaders who had thought of the day as something far off in the future. Now, with time passing quickly and the date approaching, they began bracing themselves for a multimillion-dollar hit on their budgets.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic wrought havoc upon the state and local economy.
“A lot of things have changed since the agreements were negotiated,” FDOT District Secretary Jared Perdue said.
As things now stand, the consultant hired by the CFCRC will determine whether the regional agency should operate and maintain SunRail, or whether to contract with a private corporation.
“The Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission has no staff right now,” Olore said.
As she outlined the process for the consultant to conduct thorough studies of SunRail’s current operations and finances, Olore noted the data collection would take some time. A new inter-local agreement for SunRail will also be drafted, she said.
Olore said another major point the consultant will address is “whether Phase 2 North should be built or whether to stop at DeBary.”
Phase 2 North denotes the extension of SunRail’s double tracking from the DeBary depot up to the DeLand Amtrak station.
From the outset, several years before the commuter line was christened SunRail, transportation planners said the north terminus of the 61-mile system would be DeLand, and the south terminus would be Poinciana. The DeLand connection was written into the 2007 interlocal agreements for what we now call SunRail.
Poinciana is the southernmost point of SunRail, but the 12 miles of additional track northward from DeBary to DeLand, along with a SunRail depot, remains an unfulfilled vision. If the north segment were built, state and county transportation planners estimate, it would cost at least $100 million, and Volusia County would be obligated to pay about $20 million of that cost.
The FDOT has secured a commitment from the Federal Transit Administration to receive $34 million from the Federal Highway Administration, money that had originally been set aside for road construction but is now earmarked for the capital costs of extending SunRail to DeLand.
“We would like that $34 million to be held in abeyance,” Olore said, adding the decision on the funding will come at a later date.
The CFCRC voted to send a letter to Florida Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault, requesting his agency to reserve the federal funding “for future use on the commuter rail system for legally permissible capital purposes, including, but not limited to, construction of the DeLand extension, rolling stock and bridge improvements.”
Rail Commission Chair Bob Dallari, who also chairs the Seminole County Commission, voted against sending the letter, but he agreed to sign it on behalf of the other CFCRC members.
“We look forward to further discussions,” Volusia County Chair Ed Kelley said.