The future of SunRail, including the unbuilt DeLand extension, remains racked with uncertainty, even as a South Florida rail company plans to extend the system in Central Florida.
Just a little more than six months remain until the Florida Department of Transportation is supposed to hand off SunRail — complete with its $40 million-per-year operating deficit — to its local funding partners.
Those partners include Volusia County, which points out it has received only about half the system it was supposed to get, along with Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties, and the City of Orlando. Among those partners, however, there is no clear plan for who will operate the system.
SunRail began operating May 1, 2014, between DeBary and Sand Lake Road. The FDOT is scheduled to hand it off to Orlando and the four counties May 1, 2021, leaving Volusia County taxpayers on the hook for a share of the costs.
Some local officials have asked the FDOT to continue funding and operating SunRail beyond the planned seven-year establishment period, but the agency has not yet agreed to do so.
The Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission, which manages SunRail, is also mulling what to do with almost $35 million of “flex” funding from the Federal Transit Administration.
The funds now appear to be earmarked for capital improvements to SunRail, including new trains and upgraded tracks, road crossings and signals, among other things.
Previously, some of the cash was slated to cover part of the estimated $100 million cost of extending SunRail from DeBary to DeLand.
The unfinished 12-mile segment of the SunRail system would require “double tracking” — adding an additional track parallel to the rail line already present — as well as improved crossings at roadways, signals and a station next to the Amtrak station west of DeLand.
If the DeLand piece of SunRail is to be built, Volusia County would have to pay as much as $19 million to $20 million of the construction costs.
Volusia County Chair Ed Kelley, who represents the county on the CFCRC, said the county would have to borrow the money for the expansion, and the cost of the debt would be added to the budget for years to come.
County officials are wrestling with their own money woes as the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in revenue declines.
“We would have additional costs if it does go to DeLand,” Kelley said.
Some CFCRC members called for building the DeLand rail segment, but Kelley pointed to studies concluding the extension to DeLand would provide only about 200 passengers each day.
In addition to the cost of building the extension to DeLand, operating costs would rise because of personnel, fuel and other items, including Votran bus service to and from the DeLand SunRail station.
“We don’t want to have to absorb those costs,” Kelley said.
While the financial challenge of getting the system to DeLand remains daunting, county leaders say they want to retain the DeLand piece of SunRail in the FDOT’s future work program, just in case the option somehow becomes affordable later.
The piece remains in abeyance, for now at least.
“I also recognize now is not the time,” said County Council Member Barb Girtman, who has been a supporter of the DeLand extension.
While agreeing the expansion is too pricey in a time of economic uncertainty, Girtman did call for a new study of the feasibility of constructing a double rail line and putting a SunRail station in the vicinity of State Road 472, where people’s living in Orange City, Deltona and DeLand could use it.
Volusia County officials are also objecting to a proposed east-west expansion of SunRail in the Orlando area, in coordination with Brightline, a private rail company currently serving South Florida.
The company is currently constructing an extension of its line to the Orlando International Airport, with service set to begin in 2022.
The proposal calls for the CFCRC to study “the potential of SunRail utilizing the proposed new and existing rail infrastructure from Innovation Way in east Orange County through the Orlando International Airport to Disney [World],” according to a proposed resolution
Volusia County officials are not willing to endorse such a proposal, at least until they know more about the financial and legal effects of such a deal.
“At this time, the County of Volusia does not support the proposed Resolution regarding Brightline, because it leads to an extension of the System far beyond what was contemplated in [the original plans for SunRail],” reads a letter approved by the County Council and signed by Kelley.
Kelley also objects to using public funds to subsidize Brightline, a private venture.
The partnership with Brightline is separate from the discussions in recent years regarding a proposed Phase 3 of SunRail, which would involve constructing a rail link between the Sand Lake Road station in Orlando and the airport.
Phase 3 may cost as much as $250 million, the FDOT has estimated.
SunRail now costs approximately $58 million per year to operate. Revenues from fares, advertising, charters and grants amount to about $18 million.
The deficit is almost $40 million, and the FDOT is currently covering it.
“The original projected deficit was about $7 million to $7.5 million,” county Governmental Affairs Director John Booker told the Volusia County Council Oct. 20.
If the handoff occurs from the FDOT to SunRail’s local partners, and the deficits continue, Volusia County’s taxpayers will foot part of the bill.
“Right now, our contribution just to go to DeBary is in the $3.2 million range,” County Manager George Recktenwald said.
The SunRail agreements on funding and operation were ratified by the local governments in 2007.
The commuter-rail system, unveiled in 2000 and promoted by former U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, was pitched as a daily service running on the CSX Railroad tracks between DeLand and Downtown Orlando.
The commuter-rail service, Mica said, would be an alternative for Volusians working in the Orlando area to avoid gridlock on Interstate 4, at a capital cost of between $39 million and $79 million.
The costs mounted in the years that followed.
Now, 20 years later, Volusia County Chair Ed Kelley estimates the total overall cost of building SunRail to be about $2 billion — without DeLand as its endpoint.
The system was subsequently extended south to Poinciana in Osceola County, but not north to DeLand, as originally envisioned.
Rather than having a 61-mile system, the SunRail partners have a 49-mile system.
The full impact of the pandemic on SunRail remains to be gauged.
Ridership plunged during the lockdown earlier this year, dropping as low as 800 or so passengers per day, Governmental Affairs Director Booker noted.
Kelley noted the plunging deficits have led to an even bigger gap in funding.
“With the dramatic decrease in ridership since March 2020, the deficits have only grown,” Kelley’s letter to the CFCRC reads. “We find ourselves in unprecedented times. We may not know for many months when (or if) ridership will recover to pre-pandemic levels.”