Over the objections of Volusia County Chair Ed Kelley, the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission voted at a recent meeting to support extending SunRail to DeLand.
“This makes zero sense,” Kelley told his colleagues on the commission during an Oct. 29 virtual meeting.
In October, the County Council approved a letter calling for possible funding for SunRail’s expansion to be put “in abeyance,” because Volusia County would have to pay some $19 million as its share of the cost of finishing the rail system.
“To me, a commitment is a commitment,” Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer said, referring to the interlocal agreements governing the rail venture.
The CFCRC voted 3-2 in favor of building the last piece of the long-planned 61-mile commuter line, whose north end point is now in DeBary.
“The system is not complete,” Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dallari, the chair of the commission, said. “I think we need to use every tool we have to complete Phase 2 North.”
Phase 2 North refers to the 12 miles of CSX rail corridor where another set of tracks is to be laid — except for a tiny portion where there is a rail bridge over a creek west of Orange City — between DeBary and DeLand. A SunRail station is also supposed to be built next to the DeLand Amtrak depot, if the double tracking is completed.
Kelley and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings were outnumbered by Dallari, Janer, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.
The commission’s decision came despite word from the Florida Department of Transportation that it may not use some $34 million of “flex” funding from the Federal Highway Administration to complete SunRail, after all. Earlier this year, members of the CFCRC and supporters of the DeLand extension discussed using the funds to defray the capital cost of Phase 2 North, now estimated at $100 million.
That is the projected cost of a parallel set of tracks, along with at-grade road crossings, signals and a DeLand SunRail station.
Now, FDOT state Secretary Kevin Thibault has cautioned the CFCRC that funding may be reallocated.
“Our focus is on trying to protect the program that we already have,” he told the CFCRC members via the Zoom connection.
Because gas-tax revenues have fallen during the coronavirus pandemic, Thibault said the $34 million may be needed for other FDOT expenses.
“It could be a resurfacing project, for example,” Thibault noted.
Still, the majority of the commission voted in favor of pursuing the DeLand extension. Kelley warned the other members of the body that they and their constituents would bear some of the capital and operating costs of an expanded SunRail.
“The costs are going to be even greater,” he said. “I see no sense in wasting the money.”
FDOT District 5 Secretary Jared Perdue said adding DeLand as a SunRail stop would boost the system’s daily ridership by approximately 200.
In the first few weeks of 2020, SunRail’s passenger load averaged about 7,000 per day. The pandemic took a toll on patronage, which dropped to approximately 1,000 per day. The latest daily ridership shows some 2,000 riders.
Kelley said he and the County Council do support bringing SunRail to DeLand, “when it’s feasible.”
Building to DeLand now, he added, is “a pure waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Besides having to borrow and repay about $19 million for the infrastructure, SunRail’s operating and maintenance expenses would rise, and those costs would be apportioned among all the partners.
SunRail’s annual operating costs now total about $58 million, and revenues from fares, charters and advertising amount to almost $18 million — leaving a $40 million deficit.
The FDOT, consistent with the agreements establishing the commuter-rail system, is covering its capital, debt service and operating bills for its first seven years. The state agency is supposed to hand off all of those funding responsibilities to the five local governments on May 1, 2021 — just six months away.
As of now, there is no transition plan in place. Some members have said they expect the FDOT to continue its funding role in SunRail, but Kelley said he believes Volusia and its partners will have to shoulder all of the system’s costs.
In anticipation of a coming handoff of SunRail from the state to the locals, the CFCRC agreed to hire WSP, a nationally known consulting firm, to develop a transition plan.
The Oct. 29 meeting of the CFCRC was Kelley’s last meeting as Volusia County’s representative on the commission. The County Council, reconstituted after the election, will name his successor in January.
Originally envisioned as an alternative for workers going to and from work in the Greater Orlando area, SunRail first began operating May 1, 2014. The Phase 1 service was between DeBary and Sand Lake Road in Orlando.
Phase 2 was subdivided into two segments: a south stretch from Sand Lake Road to Poinciana in Osceola County, and the northern segment between DeBary and DeLand. Phase 2 North is the only remaining portion of SunRail yet to be built.
Though it is not complete, SunRail’s capital costs already amount to more than $1.5 billion.
Laying a parallel set of tracks and making related improvements, such as at-grade road crossings, signals and a SunRail train station, will cost an estimated $100 million more.
If SunRail is extended to DeLand, the service will not become a reality as quickly as some may wish.
Once a full decision is made, with funding and support from federal and state agencies, the CFCRC learned, the design and engineering of the rail segment will take approximately one year, and construction will require about another 12 to 18 months.
— Al Everson