With some tinges of heartburn and uncertainty, the Volusia County Council is on board with a proposal to extend commuter-rail service northward to DeLand.
The council voted unanimously Jan. 19 for a slimmed-down plan to provide a daily 32-stop schedule on weekdays at a SunRail depot yet to be built next to the Amtrak station along Old New York Avenue.
The estimated cost of the extra tracks, a depot, a parking lot and road crossings is now almost $42 million. Volusia County’s share of that capital outlay will be 25 percent, or about $10.5 million.
“The [Florida] Department [of Transportation] has worked hard to get our capital costs down,” County Manager George Recktenwald told the council.
Which choice is best?
The FDOT had prepared and presented three options, or possible courses of action, for Volusia County to consider:
Option 1, a “bare bones” $14.1 million plan that includes the construction of a rail station and six stops per day, meaning three trains in the early morning, a midday train and two northbound trains arriving during the evening hours.
Option 2 — the council’s choice — provides for about 6 miles of double tracking, as well as the new SunRail station and other infrastructure. Trains will arrive and depart every 30 minutes during the rush hours.
Option 3 would mean building 11.2 miles of double tracking between DeBary and DeLand, as originally envisioned. The estimated cost of finishing the long-planned buildout of the 61-mile commuter-rail system is currently approximately $75 million, and the county’s share would be about $19 million.
Council Member Barb Girtman suggested “Option 2, the hybrid option.”
“I’ll take Option 2,” Council Member Heather Post said.
Whichever proposal is ultimately adopted by the FDOT, those numbers could change.
“When they open up the bIds, then you’ll know the cost of the project,” John Booker, the head of the county Government Affairs Office, said.
The County Council’s support of the new and revised DeLand SunRail scenario will be formally proposed to the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission when it meets Feb. 4 in Orlando. County leaders intend to go to that meeting.
Circumstances beyond their control
The council’s decision to adopt the DeLand SunRail-service proposal follows from the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission’s Oct. 29 vote to extend the system northward. The CFCRC voted 3-2 to add the DeLand segment of the system, and thus to require Volusia County to pay a share of the cost.
Then-County Chair Ed Kelley was on the losing side of the commission’s vote. Kelley opposed the extension of service to DeLand because of the costs of building, maintaining and operating the system. Kelley cited official projections of a gain in ridership of some 200 people per day from the DeLand depot in a time when SunRail is running deficits far greater than its planners had anticipated.
Kelley’s successor, County Chair Jeff Brower, wrestled with the prospect of low ridership gains and the obligation to comply with the CFCRC’s decision.
“I’m trying to figure out how to spend the public’s money,” he said, noting the county has other unfulfilled transit needs, such as a lack of sheltered bus stops for waiting patrons who now must brave hot sun and drenching rains.
“I’m not just representing the council; I’m representing the voters of Volusia County,” he noted.
Volusia County leaders say that FDOT can legally compel them to pay their share of the SunRail project, if not by persuasion, then by cutting the state’s share of road funding for the county.
In any event, as the council considered the choices, County Manager Recktenwald advised against the first and least costly one.
“That does not meet the contractual requirements,” he said, referring to the commuter-rail agreements ratified by Volusia and its four partners — Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando — in 2007.
The past was prologue
The council’s reluctant agreement to support the reduced-cost extension of SunRail service to DeLand, in light of the actions of predecessors, came with some hindsight observations.
“To start with, I never would have voted for this,” Council Member Ben Johnson said. “We don’t really have the ability to stop it, and we could get something jammed down our throat.”
“I certainly would not have voted for it, either,” Vice Chair Billie Wheeler told her colleagues. “We’re not getting anything for the investment that we’re having to make.”
Although the CFCRC has committed to add the DeLand SunRail segment, no timetable for construction or a tentative start of operations has been announced.
The CFCRC may learn Feb. 4 if the FDOT will indeed hand off SunRail to the five local partners in the venture on May 1. A transition plan has yet to be unveiled. The commission has hired a consultant to assist in the transfer of ownership of the system.
Consistent with the early agreements, the FDOT is paying all of the operating and maintenance expenses of SunRail for the first seven years of its service. Those operating items Include the Votran bus service to and from the DeBary SunRail station. That seven-year period ends April 30 — less than three months away, and counting — unless the state agency is persuaded to continue for a while longer.
If the FDOT does end its largesse, then Volusia County and its four partners will begin shouldering all the costs of the system — minus whatever state or federal grants may cover.
SunRail’s capital costs incurred over the past 20 years, including planning, engineering, design, right of way, infrastructure improvements and diesel trains, now amount to some $1.5 billion.
The inter-county rail system’s annual operating expenses now total approximately $58 million. Income from fares, charter services and advertising account for about $18 million — leaving a $40 million shortfall that Volusia and its partners may soon face.
People’s usage of SunRail to get from place to place has plummeted because of the pandemic.
In early 2020, SunRail had an average daily ridership of just under 7,000. In March, the ridership dropped to about 1,000 per day along the entire 49-mile route between DeBary and Poinciana. As of December, the average daily passenger count was 2,355.