The nuts and bolts of adding DeLand to the SunRail system may become visible early in 2022.
“You should see rail on the ground in February,” SunRail Chief Operating Officer Charles M. Heffinger Jr. told The Beacon, after the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission wrapped up its quarterly meeting in Orlando.
But the Florida Department of Transportation’s latest timetable doesn’t anticipate trains running to DeLand’s yet-to-be-built SunRail depot before early 2024.
Still, locals will likely have a chance to celebrate the system’s expansion to DeLand. Heffinger said the FDOT will probably arrange a celebration of the laying of the first rails.
It’s now more than seven years after daily SunRail service began in DeBary, and more than 20 years since then-U.S. Rep. John Mica promised a commuter-rail connection between Orlando and DeLand.
The FDOT currently owns and operates SunRail, but will eventually hand it off — along with its costs and maintenance needs — to five local partners, including Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando.
The northward extension from DeBary to DeLand, part of the original design but later derailed by political maneuvers and funding challenges, is a 12-mile stretch that will cost about $42 million.
Portions of the 12-mile stretch of FDOT-owned rail corridor will have dual tracks to enable trains to run simultaneously in both directions during peak travel times.
In addition to laying steel rails, Heffinger said, the FDOT will seek bids from contractors to place signals for what is now called Phase 2 North, DeBary to DeLand. That bid opening is set for Jan. 20, 2022.
As construction of Phase 2 North appears closer, Volusia County’s representative to the Rail Commission raised questions about certain amenities for passengers.
“I want to make sure that the stations have bathrooms,” Volusia County Chair Jeff Brower told his fellow commissioners and FDOT staffers at the commission’s Nov. 4 meeting. “I get a lot of feedback from DeBary that there are no bathrooms there.”
“Why was the decision made not to include bathrooms at stations?” Brower asked.
“It’s a fair question,” FDOT District 5 Secretary Jared Perdue replied. “We have bathrooms on the trains themselves.”
Brower said he would favor adding restrooms at SunRail depots for the convenience of riders, especially for parents with young children, as well as seniors. Brower also said he supports efforts to boost SunRail’s ridership, which has yet to recover from a pandemic-related plunge.
Average daily ridership on the commuter trains fell from almost 7,000 in February 2020 to about 3,100 in June 2021 and fewer than 3,000 in September 2021, the most recent month for which statistics are available.
A little history
ORIGINAL PLAN — U.S. Rep. John Mica’s original plan for a 61-mile commuter-train system called for the rail line to begin at DeLand and provide Volusians who work in the Greater Orlando area an alternative to Interstate 4.
MODIFICATION — As time went on, the system was modified to make Poinciana in Osceola County, rather than Sand Lake Road, the south end of the line. The governing bodies of five local governments — Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando — ratified and signed operating and financial agreements with the FDOT for construction of the system, which included parallel tracks in the portion of the CSX rail corridor the FDOT bought from CSX for $491 million.
PHASES — In the meantime, the SunRail project was divided into two phases. Phase 1 consisted of about 32 miles between DeBary and Sand Lake Road in Orange County. That stretch became operational with weekday service May 1, 2014.
EXTENSIONS — Phase 2 was further subdivided into Phase 2A, the 17-mile stretch between Sand Lake Road and Poinciana in Osceola County, and Phase 2B, also called Phase 2 North, between DeBary and DeLand. Trains began operating on Phase 2A in 2018, while Phase 2B remained only on the drawing board.
THE FUNDING — The key reason for not completing the original SunRail project was money — or the lack of it. The cost of extending the system to DeLand was estimated at $90 million-$120 million. Efforts to secure extra federal funding — over and above a possible 50 percent of the capital cost — were unsuccessful, leaving the state and Volusia County to shoulder and share a large amount of the expense.
VALUE ENGINEERING — Earlier this year, the FDOT announced it had been able to reduce the cost of building Phase 2 North by applying a process known as “value engineering.” The careful technical review with an eye toward saving cash resulted in a lower price tag of about $42 million. Of that sum, Volusia County will be responsible for about $11 million. The County Council has taken out a loan from the State Infrastructure Bank to finance its portion.