Update, May 10: This story was updated with additional information.
Universal Studios got invited to a meeting about expanding SunRail — maybe even to Tampa — but Volusia County didn’t.
The shock and dismay for Volusia County came to the forefront, as leaders of the five-party SunRail venture convened in Orlando.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’ proposal to enlarge SunRail far beyond its original vision, and Volusia County’s questions about such an expansion, stirred interest and calls for answers — and the answers are yet to come forth.
The Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission’s quarterly meeting in Orlando May 5 included a recap of the ambitious mass-transit plan to spread out, but information about the costs and how much each member government may bear was elusive.
“We’re changing from a commuter-rail system to something else,” Volusia County Chair Jeff Brower told his colleagues, including Demings. “We have some critical things that we have to decide.”
Brower was not alone in his concerns.
“I have a lot of questions,” Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dallari, who represents his county on the CFCRC, said. “I appreciate Volusia County writing the letter.”
The Volusia County Council’s letter, dated May 4, came after officials learned Demings and a group of Orlando-area civic and business leaders had traveled to Washington, D.C., at the end of March to inquire about possible grant funding to morph SunRail into a much larger rail network. The plan for the bigger rail system, which would include service to Orlando International Airport, Apopka, International Drive, Disney World, Universal Studios, and even perhaps Tampa, is known as the Sunshine Corridor Program.
Volusia County officials only learned of the existence of the concept because of a Google alert picked up by John Booker, Volusia County’s director of government affairs.
“As we expand the SunRail system … our costs will go up,” Booker had told the Volusia County Council.
He noted, too, the idea of such an expansion of the commuter-rail system was never envisioned when the interlocal agreements establishing the five-member SunRail partnership were ratified in 2007. The five local partners are Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando.
“The pledging of SunRail assets to the west was not contemplated in the original agreement,” Booker said.
Demings sent a copy of his letter, dated April 4, to “Community Partners,” including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who represents his city on the CFCRC, but not to any of the other three members of the panel, namely Brower, Dallari and Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer.
“We were not included, either,” Janer confirmed.
“Discussion was primarily around a new option called the Sunshine Corridor Program that features a new rail corridor shared by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT)/Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission (SunRail) and Brightline from the Orlando International Airport (OIA) along the SR528 and I-4 to Tampa with stations along the route,” Demings’ letter reads.
Demings said the D.C. meeting was an opportunity to discuss “how to leverage federal infrastructure grant dollars” for launching expanded rail service in Central Florida.
Brower expressed concerns about the repercussions of such a proposal, especially the growth in costs for Volusia County to help pay for more rail service to more places outside Volusia. He referenced the 2007 interlocal contracts among the SunRail partners.
“We’re changing the agreement from a commuter-rail system to something else,” he said.
Brower wanted to know “if there’s any way to hold Volusia County harmless” against major expenses arising from a greater rail venture.
Realizing the shock of the Sunshine Corridor Program, Demings said the plan needs work.
“We’re not as far along in the discussion as it might appear,” he told Brower.
“I certainly understand Volusia’s position on this,” Demings also said. “Going forward, I agree with Mayor Dyer. … In order to improve ridership, it’s going to require collaboration. … There is going to be increased cost.”
How much of the increased cost will fall onto Volusia County and sister counties is not clear. The word of the change from simply SunRail to the Sunshine Corridor Program comes as Demings and other Orange County leaders are preparing to ask their voters to approve a 1-cent local-option sales tax for transportation projects and improvements. The referendum may be placed on the Nov. 8 general-election ballot. If passed, the sales tax would generate almost $600 million each year for transportation, including perhaps more mass-transit options.
“Orange County would have a dedicated funding source for the next 20 years,” Demings said.
Besides just laying more tracks to more places, additional SunRail service may include running the trains every day and for longer hours.
“Before we start going to nights and weekends, how much is it going to cost?” Dallari wanted to know.
The SunRail surprise comes as members of the CFCRC are trying to resolve the future ownership, management and control of the rail system. Besides the five local governments — Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando — the FDOT is also a partner. Since SunRail’s inception, FDOT has been the chief funding source of the regional rail system.
The FDOT was supposed to hand off the ownership and operations of SunRail to the localities in May 2021, but that transfer was delayed pending the development of a transition plan. The state agency may hand off SunRail to the local partners in 2024, according to the latest timetable.
When the FDOT does relinquish ownership and control of SunRail, the local governments will become responsible for paying its capital, operating and maintenance expenses — and covering its deficits.
Realizing the transfer of ownership is coming, the CFCRC tentatively agreed with Dyer on the need “to have more than three meetings a year.”
The meetings of the CFCRC are open to the public.