Editor’s note: The Beacon‘s Al Everson has been covering SunRail since it was the topic of sales pitches by elected officials and transportation planners about 20 years ago. Currently, he attends meetings of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission in Orlando, and also covers the Volusia County Council, paying close attention to news about SunRail.
When he first proposed setting up a commuter-rail system between DeLand and Orlando in early 2000, then-U.S. Rep. John Mica said the special short-haul diesel trains would give West Volusians and others a fast and cheap way to get to and from work or business in the Big City.
Fourteen years elapsed between Mica’s unveiling of his plan for a new regional transit option and the first commuter-train run on May 1, 2014.
The idea of skipping congestion on Interstate 4 sounded appealing to many, as Mica voiced certainty that people would board the train for a comfortable commute.
A few critics cast doubt on predictions of thousands of workers per day using the trains, as the cost of the transit system climbed ever higher.
Americans, after all, they said, have a love affair with their cars, and are loath to give them up — despite some inconvenience on the interstate.
When the commuter-rail line was first envisioned, the ridership, we were told, would consist of people already living here and working in the Greater Orlando area, especially in the Downtown Orlando business district and the huge Florida Hospital campus, now known as AdventHealth.
In 2007, the transit visionaries unveiled a new concept to keep the train project on track: transit-oriented development, called TOD for short.
TOD may also be, as it is in DeBary, an acronym for Transit Overlay District, meaning an area around a SunRail station that is planned for special development.
TOD, planners said, would be a sensible mix of residential, commercial and office buildings, even perhaps involving clean industrial development around the railhead.
Residential development would be the key, so people could live near the trains. That marked a turning point in thinking about commuter rail.
From the outset, SunRail supporters intended to make DeLand the system’s northern terminus. A commuter-rail depot would be co-located at the DeLand Amtrak station.
But at first, supporters of commuter rail said there was already a ridership market of people who would eagerly board the trains to get to and from work. TOD suggested we would have to create new places for more people to live and conveniently use the system, to create a market of new train riders.
In other words, we would have to develop a new market of rail patrons by bringing more urban development to the area between DeLand and the St. Johns River.
When I asked Mica in 2009 if TOD was needed to make the rail-transit system viable, he did not deny it.
The Great Recession of 2008 knocked some TOD planning into a cocked hat. Now, the housing boom that began over the past five years has almost made the housing bust seem like a distant memory.
For example, the Volusia County Council in 2019 approved a residential project known as Pelham Square, a 141-home neighborhood along West Euclid and Ridgewood avenues in the neighborhood of the DeLand SunRail Station.
More such development may be forthcoming, as investors resurrect old plans for new subdivisions, carving old homesteads, frozen-out citrus groves and farms into small suburban lots.
DeBary, now the northern end of the line for SunRail, has indeed seen its Transit Overlay District come into being.
One new apartment complex, Integra 289, has opened, and more are in the offing. A mixed-use project known as The Junction, a sort of downtown for DeBary, is to be developed on 64 acres at the intersection of U.S. Highway 17-92 and Dirksen Drive.
DeBary’s TOD consists of approximately 210 acres adjoining and surrounding the SunRail depot.
The parcels within the TOD are privately owned, but city officials are seeking to lure high-quality development to make the south end of DeBary a showcase of economic opportunity and modern living, as well as a destination for natural beauty, active recreation such as hiking and biking, and special events — and SunRail riders are to be part of that inflow of visitors.
Of course, DeBary’s civic and business leaders would not object if those visitors include entrepreneurs, investors and executives who want to bring their companies’ names and employment to DeBary — and perhaps have their new employees in DeBary riding SunRail from Seminole and Orange counties.
5 — The number of local governments who are partners in the SunRail venture: Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties, and the City of Orlando.
61 — Total length in miles of the portion of the CSX rail corridor between DeLand and Poinciana owned by the Florida Department of Transportation for use by SunRail.
49 — Length in miles of the CSX corridor between DeBary and Poinciana now used by SunRail.
12 — The approximate length in miles of that last segment of SunRail between DeBary and DeLand that is awaiting improvement to extend daily commuter services to DeLand.
42 — Instead of laying a second set of railroad tracks from DeBary to DeLand, the FDOT is considering a less-expensive proposal to lay parallel tracks 2 miles north of DeBary and 4 miles south of DeLand. Doing it that way is expected to cost about $42 million. Previous estimated costs of extending SunRail to DeLand have ranged between $77 million and $100 million.
1 — The capitol costs incurred so far by SunRail total $1 billion.
58 — The annual operating costs of SunRail are $58 billion.
18 — The revenues of SunRail, namely fares, along with advertising income and charters, total $18 million per year.
40 — The annual operating deficit of SunRail, which the FDOT is now covering, but which will someday become the responsibility of the local partners, including Volusia County, is currently $40 million.