BEACON PHOTO/NOAH HERTZ

Barring unforeseen happenings, the Florida Department of Transportation will give SunRail to Volusia County and four other local governments less than two years from now.

Come June 30, 2024, or thereabouts, Volusia County, along with Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties and the City of Orlando, will own, operate and maintain the 61-mile railroad and the short-haul trains upon it. For those who wonder when SunRail trains will run to and from DeLand, the FDOT now says regular service will likely begin in late 2023.

That means the five local SunRail partners will become responsible for paying for the commuter-rail system between DeLand and Poinciana, with Orlando in its center. The formal entity owning SunRail will be the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission, whose members come from each of the elected governing bodies of the five local partners.

The FDOT, however, may have a funding role in SunRail for a while longer, according to Alan Danaher, assistant vice president of WSP, the consulting firm hired by the Commuter Rail Commission to aid in the transition.

“It’s our proposal to extend that out to 2027,” Danaher told the Volusia County Council July 19.

Danaher noted the FDOT has renewed contracts with three private companies for the operations and maintenance of SunRail for three years beyond 2024, and thus the state agency is interested in seeing the agreements fulfilled.

The stepped-up attention to the FDOT’s handoff of SunRail to the locals comes as the construction of the final segment of the system is poised to get underway. The FDOT has awarded a $34.2 million contract to Herzog Contracting Corp. to lay portions of double railroad tracks in the 12-mile stretch between DeBary and DeLand and to build a SunRail depot next to the DeLand Amtrak station.

Getting ready for the change

WSP is preparing a complete report on the transition. That report is supposed to be ready for adoption by the Commuter Rail Commission in November.

The change in ownership will likely bring a change in the operating entity. WSP suggests that the Commuter Rail Commission enter into a contract with the Greater Orlando bus system, known as Lynx, to become the operator of SunRail. Even though Lynx now has no rail assets or experience, WSP advises the transit agency is capable of absorbing and running SunRail.

“There would be some dedicated staff … for SunRail that would have nothing to do with Lynx,” WSP Managing Director Ronald Hartman told the County Council via Zoom videoconference. “There would have to be an operating agreement or a contractual agreement.”

Danaher said “maybe nine additional Lynx employees” would be needed for SunRail.

The consulting firm aiding in the transition of ownership is preparing a report that tentatively recommends Lynx as the best and least expensive way to keep SunRail running and possibly expanding.

Potential and pitfalls

WSP noted in its findings that thus far the Commuter Rail Commission itself could become the operating agency of SunRail, but that would be a very costly option. The estimated annual cost of making the rail commission the operator of SunRail is about $64 million during the 2024-25 fiscal year — the first full year of the system under new local ownership. Volusia County’s share of that sum would be approximately $6 million to $9 million.

If the rail commission were to become the full-fledged commuter-rail agency, it would become responsible for hiring all personnel, including cleaning attendants, mechanics, conductors, engineers and customer-service agents.

“Everything would be done in-house,” Danaher said.

As many as 200 people would be needed to fill the positions of an altogether-new agency, the consultants note.

In addition, the rail commission would probably need or wish to secure separate office space to establish its identity. Moreover, the rail commission would have to purchase all the various types of property and casualty insurance that the FDOT, as well as Lynx, already has. While the FDOT is operating SunRail, the state agency maintains a $10 million self-retention fund and carries $322 million in liability coverage.

To save itself money and worry, the Commuter Rail Commission can contract out all of the administrative and operating services to Lynx or some other public or private transit agency. By contracting out its needs to an existing entity, the commission may expect to see expenses totaling about $54 million for the first full year of operating SunRail, while Volusia’s share of the cost would be $5 million to $6 million.

Looking ahead

In either case, the costs of running SunRail are projected to increase in future years, even if the levels of service on weekdays remain steady.

“I believe there will be a lot of pressure to increase the service to nights and weekends, and that will raise the cost,” Volusia County Manager George Recktenwald said.

The prospect of letting Lynx run SunRail is unsettling for some Volusia leaders.

“We don’t have a voice,” County Chair Jeff Brower said, referring to the Lynx board of directors.

Lynx provides transit service in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, but not Volusia. Volusia County has Votran as its bus and paratransit service.

“I think Volusia needs to have a representative on the Lynx board,” County Council Member Billie Wheeler said.

“I have a hard time swallowing this,” Council Member Danny Robins told his colleagues.

County Manager George Recktenwald acknowledged “there are some unknowns” in the transition,” and he suggested the County Council “have Lynx come up here and do a presentation … on how they would actually run it [SunRail].”

At the suggestion of Council Vice Chair Barb Girtman, the County Council may consider setting a workshop on the future of SunRail in September. WSP’s final report on the transition of SunRail’s ownership is due to be submitted to the Commuter Rail Commission in November.

For the state’s fiscal year 2021-22 that ended June 30, SunRail’s operating costs totaled $73.7 million. The revenues for SunRail amounted to some $31 million — leaving a deficit of approximately $42.7 million. The FDOT is now filling the shortfall, but once the transition is complete, the five local partners will be responsible for balancing SunRail’s budget with revenues from their own constituents.

Of the $31 million in revenues for SunRail, fares paid by riders accounted for almost $1.9 million — or about 6 percent of the income. SunRail’s proponents and critics agree more ridership is needed.

Other major sources of income for SunRail were Federal Transit Administration grants of $20.2 million and $3.8 million paid by CSX for its freight trains to use the FDOT-owned SunRail corridor between DeLand and Poinciana.

2 COMMENTS

  1. $9,000,000 (Annual High Estimate for Volusia’s Taxpayers)
    Divided by 260 Operating Days A Year (Monday – Friday W/O Overnight Service)
    = $34,615 per day operational cost for Volusia County’s Taxpayers.

    Estimated daily riders from the DeLand Station 200 and estimated daily riders from the Debery Station 262 (Based on the April 2022 numbers) = 462 users per day from Volusia County. *Now the question remains, is SunRail counting each onboarding and offboarding OR are they counting onboardings only, considering most everyone using SunRail would be leaving and returning to the same stations daily.

    $34,615 per day operation cost for Volusia County’s Taxpayers
    Divided by 460 Passengers Per Day OnBoarding from Volusia County
    = $75.25 per passenger

    Now let’s figure 50% use SunRail daily for its intended purpose as a commuter rail system to get to and from work.

    $17,307 per day operational cost paid by Volusia County’s taxpayers for 230 daily work commuter users is $75.25 per day or $3,913 per year for each daily work related commuter passenger. (Taxpayers could buy each daily user a nice fuel efficient car and pay for their fuel and other expenses for that amount).

    So we are left with the other half of us who would use SunRail mostly for the occasional day trips and as shown above Volusia County’s taxpayers will be subsidizing those fun day trips at $75.25 per trip. And we must consider, most of those trips will be us leaving Volusia County to go spend our money elsewhere with just a few coming into Volusia County.

    The costs, using the high estimates or low estimates, simply can not be justified for us here in Volusia County and we must consider SunRail was designed to take vehicles off of I-4 that is an interstate highway funded by the State and Federal governments. Volusia County should have never been involved with funding SunRail. As our roads and infrastructure are in need of costly repairs and improvements we are now subsidizing something that should have been the State and Federal governments responsibilities

    Former politicians, some who are still lingering around and still influencing the political landscape with their bad ideas, got us into this mess with little thought and poor planning. Now others are left to clean up the messes and mitigate the damages that have been caused. For me, if we can get out of the SunRail agreements I want Volusia County totally out, however, if we are legally bound to stay the course the County needs to make the best of it and do all it can to make SunRail work well for all of us who are being forced to fund it. At $75.25 per boarding paid by Volusia’s taxpayers plus the price of the tickets we should be guaranteed a spectacular experience each time we use SunRail. We should be ALL IN … Or Totally OUT!

    And I agree with Council Member Girtman, there needs to be a workshop soon on the issue of SunRail that includes public participation.

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