BEACON PHOTO/AL EVERSON DETAILS — Jessica Ottaviano and Sun- Rail COO Charles Heffinger chat with Kevin Spear of the Orlando Sentinel.

A contractor’s bid protest is causing a delay in getting SunRail to DeLand.

The latest roadblock is questions raised by a construction firm that had submitted one of four bids to build the 12-mile rail-line extension and its related improvements between DeBary and DeLand.

The good news is — maybe — all four bids received were below the Florida Department of Transportation’s estimate of $44 million to extend SunRail to DeLand. 

But whether the estimates hold is yet to be seen. SunRail Chief Operating Officer Charles Heffinger told the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission at its Feb. 3 meeting that inflation is driving up the prices of building materials.

“Steel is about three to five times the price it was last year,” Heffinger said. 

The four bids are:

— Herzog Contracting Corp., $34,426,598

— Southland-Queen City Joint Venture, $32,920,000.01

— The Middlesex Corp., $37,957,000

— Prince Contracting LLC and Railroad Services JV, $35,876,000

Details of the bid protest have not been made available. The Beacon filed a public-information request with the FDOT on Feb. 9, but had not received the materials Feb. 14.

“We do have a protest, and we have not awarded the contract yet,” FDOT spokeswoman Jessica Ottaviano told The Beacon.

What we know is that the bids were opened in late 2021, and the work involved includes laying the parallel tracks, improving at-grade crossings with roads, installing lights and signals, and building a SunRail depot next to the Amtrak train station in DeLand.

By using value engineering, the FDOT was able to reduce the cost of the DeLand extension from original estimates of between $90 million and $120 million.

The value engineering involved technical scrutiny of the project with an eye toward cutting expenses. The FDOT last year presented its new cost estimate to the Volusia County Council, promising the long-awaited DeLand extension would be completed in late 2023 or in early 2024. 

With the less burdensome cost estimate, the County Council voted to borrow almost $11 million to cover its share of the DeBary-to-DeLand rail segment.

Last fall, Heffinger said the actual construction of the last original segment of the system would likely begin with a groundbreaking ceremony in February 2022. Now, with the bid protest, that celebratory start of the project will probably not happen this month, after all.

Progress in completing the original commuter-rail system, as unveiled in 2000 by then-U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, comes as the regional partners consider what the future holds for the costly venture. 

Who will run SunRail in the future?

Almost eight years after it began regular service, SunRail still faces uncertainty about its future, especially about who or what will operate the commuter-rail system in the years ahead. And, about whether SunRail will grow and become a bigger regional transit system, broadening its destinations to include Brevard and Lake counties, and possibly others in Central Florida.

Here is the situation in a nutshell:

— Transportation planners and leaders of the five local governments destined to own the commuter-rail system have learned, to their relief, that they have at least another two years before they must assume responsibility for the transit service. 

“We have two years. That seems like a lot of time, but it’s not,” Volusia County Chair Jeff Brower told his colleagues on the Rail Commission.

The Big Five co-owners — Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties and the City of Orlando — are connected via the system and are supposed to take ownership of and manage the system now owned and operated by the Florida Department of Transportation.

— The FDOT has run the trains since SunRail service between DeBary and Orlando started May 1, 2014. The state agency has also picked up the bills for ancillary amenities, such as local bus service to and from the SunRail depots. Bus passengers pay a fare to go to and from the SunRail stations, but the fares cover only a small percentage of the costs of running the buses. 

In Volusia County, Votran takes riders to the DeBary station to board Orlando-bound trains each weekday morning, except on major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, and picks them up in the afternoons or evenings and takes them to their homes or carpool parking sites. 

In Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties, Lynx buses provide similar services at FDOT’s expense.

— The agreements establishing SunRail provided for the FDOT to operate the system and pay virtually all of its expenses for the first seven years. That expired April 30, 2021, but the FDOT agreed to continue as the owner — and deep pockets — to cover the system’s costs and supporting services.

— SunRail’s 2021-22 budget puts the operating and capital costs at about $83.5 million, while annual revenues are projected to total approximately $31.3 million. That leaves a deficit of some $52 million that must be paid by state and federal appropriations — aka the taxpayers.

— The revenues come mainly from paying riders, advertising and lease payments from CSX and Amtrak to use the state-owned 61-mile rail corridor. The lease payments total about $18 million. 

— Since regular SunRail service began in 2014, there was always the understanding that the FDOT would hand off the system to the local partners. Yet, until about 2020, there was little sense of urgency or preparation. The time for the transition crept up on the leaders of the Big Five, who ultimately agreed to hire a consultant to recommend options for their takeover.

In the meantime, the system still had not been extended to DeLand, and Volusia County argued that its share should be reduced, since the county hadn’t gotten the full system it was promised.

The Rail Commission contracted with WSP, a nationally and internationally known firm, to study SunRail and recommend what its future governance should be. The commission is paying WSP $1 million for its services. 

Each of the funding partners is providing $200,000 for the company to chart SunRail’s post-FDOT future.

— Thus far, WSP has envisioned three possible scenarios for SunRail’s ownership and management.

++ The first option is for the CFCRC to own and operate SunRail, a new state government agency complete with its own bureaucracy and staff to run and maintain the trains.

++ The second option is for the CFCRC to incorporate SunRail as a separate entity with its operations and maintenance with another agency.

++ The third option would be a hybrid of the Rail Commission to be partially staffed while SunRail’s day-to-day operations and maintenance would be outsourced to contractors. Outgoing Rail Commission Chair and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said he would like to know “what a consortium would look like.” 

Possible future operators of SunRail may include, according to the information compiled to date, Lynx or the Central Florida Expressway Authority. The preliminary finding by WSP noted neither of those agencies has experience in operating rail transit. 

— WSP also reviewed the possibility of working with Brightline, the ambitious private rail system that intends to spread its reach from South Florida to Central Florida. However, the CFCRC reached a consensus against considering Brightline, because, as a for-profit company, it would not be eligible to receive federal subsidies, such as those the FDOT, Lynx and Votran could get. 

— In April and May, WSP is slated to submit reports on its progress in analyzing SunRail’s records and gathering details about a transition of ownership. 

The Rail Commission’s next meeting is set for 10 a.m. Thursday, May 5, in Orlando.

— In spite of the agreements calling for the FDOT to relinquish ownership and control of SunRail to the local partners at some point, some people want the state agency to keep and run the rail system.

“It’s an acknowledgment that the FDOT is doing a good job of running SunRail,” FDOT District 5 Secretary Jared Perdue said. “We want to be good partners. We want SunRail to be a success. It’s needed.”

If the state is to keep the rail system, someone or something higher may have to arrange for permanent control.

“Ultimately, the Legislature will probably have to get involved, if FDOT is to operate SunRail,” Orlando Mayor and newly selected Rail Commission Chair Buddy Dyer said.

“If we need to go back to the Legislature, we need to go back to the Legislature,” Seminole County Commissioner and member Bob Dallari said.

Dallari also suggested the commission “look at all options” for the future of SunRail.

“I get the sense they [FDOT] really want to transit to local control,” Demings said.

In the annual reshuffling of the leadership of the five-member CFCRC, Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer was chosen by her colleagues as vice chair for 2022, and Brower was named secretary.

Could Sunrail keep growing?

If some of SunRail’s biggest proponents have their way, the rail network will grow substantially in the years ahead. 

Now a sort of “spine” in East Central Florida whose south terminus is Poinciana and whose north end is destined to be DeLand, there are renewed calls to add more destinations and stops.

As the Rail Commission pondered the possible change of ownership of SunRail at some future date, Demings talked about Orange County’s intention to ask voters this year to approve a 1-cent sales tax for transportation. 

Such a tax, he said, would be “a dedicated funding source of $600 million or so” in new revenues for Orange County.

“The revenues generated by the sales tax would allow us to do something transformational,” he told his colleagues. “We want to have folks go east and west.”

One idea for an outward expansion of SunRail is known as Phase 3, which would extend train service to Orlando International Airport. Some preliminary design and engineering have already been done to make the project a reality. The cost of such an extension may be in excess of $250 million. 

Other ideas include running trains from Downtown Orlando to the University of Central Florida, and perhaps points in Brevard and Lake counties.

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