BEACON PHOTO/AL EVERSON GETTING ON BOARD — Riders prepare to board a SunRail train.

With some reservations about SunRail’s cost and its history, the Volusia County Council is lending its support to a proposal to study future expansion of rail service well outside the system’s current boundaries.

Volusia’s backing of the proposal did not come easy.

“This vote takes us in a completely different direction for a commuter rail that was supposed to take cars off the road,” County Chair Jeff Brower told his council Sept. 20 in a debate about a resolution calling for a study of increased rail service within Orange County.

That resolution garnered the support of the council and subsequently won unanimous approval by the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission two days later.

“What we signed on for was a commuter rail,” Brower continued. “You’re completely changing the direction of SunRail.

The resolution notes “the CFCRC Board supports a vision for future expansion of the SunRail system to continue to serve the Central Florida workforce, residents, visitors and community.” In addition, “the Sunshine Corridor Program is a comprehensive passenger rail improvement program that serves to connect the 61-mile SunRail corridor to a comprehensive east-west corridor,” the position statement reads.

The resolution calls for an in-depth study of the cost and feasibility of building and operating a rail segment known as the Sunshine Corridor. The Sunshine Corridor, as proposed, would be a rail link between Orlando International Airport and the International Drive tourist district, and perhaps extending to Disney World.

After echoing his council’s and his own angst about SunRail’s deficits and the failure to have commuter trains running from and to DeLand — as promised in the original interlocal agreements ratified in 2007 — Brower followed his council’s direction and joined his peers representing Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando in unanimously supporting the study.

“This is the only way to find out,” Brower said, as the CFCRC backed the resolution for a study.

“I’d like to congratulate this body for passing the resolution,” Florida Department of Transportation District 5 Secretary John Tyler told the CFCRC after its 5-0 vote.

Supporters of the expansion of SunRail, by including the Sunshine Corridor and operating trains nights and weekends, would bring more ridership. The Sunshine Corridor would be used by visitors to the area’s world-renowned theme parks, as well as the hotels and restaurants.

The latest budget figures show SunRail is operating with an annual deficit of approximately $45 million, with trains running weekdays between DeBary and Poinciana. The addition of the Sunshine Corridor, according to its proponents, would generate a rising flow of revenues from riders coming to the area from around the country and around the world and thus reduce SunRail’s shortfall.

“We believe it will prop up the SunRail system,” Bob O’Malley, a rail consultant, said.

So far, there is no timetable for the construction of the Sunshine Corridor. Nor is the cost of adding night and weekend operations known. Orange County officials and business leaders hope to secure major grants from the Federal Transit Administration to pay for the project, especially in light of the Congress’s recent passage of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

“I hope Mr. O’Malley is right, and it will benefit all of us,” Brower said.

O’Malley added support for the resolution bolsters the “continued regional partnership.”

Brower and other members of the County Council have voiced concerns that the cost of a bigger SunRail system will result in added costs for Volusia taxpayers.

“I don’t support future expansion when I don’t know what it costs,” Brower said.

Seemingly alone among her fellow elected leaders, Council Vice Chair Barb Girtman called for Volusia’s support for “a nonbinding resolution.”

“No one is asking for Volusia dollars right now,” she said. “What’s coming back to us is information. … I may be one of the few visionaries.”

Brower, however, was not alone.

“I think we should be very careful,” Council Member Danny Robins said.

“I’m not in agreement with this resolution, the way it’s written,” Council Member Billie Wheeler said. “We don’t have enough information.”

Some of the strongest words came from Council Member Ben Johnson, who “accused the other SunRail partners of “totally ignoring Volusia County.”

“We kinda feel like the redheaded step-young’un,” he said. “I’d love to see the study. … There’s a lack of trust with our partners, because they don’t care what we think.”

Johnson sought a legal opinion on the resolution.

“Does this bind us in any way?” he asked.

“It does not bind us financially, but it does memorialize our support for expanding the system,” Assistant County Attorney Laura Coleman replied.

With the assurance of not having to pay anything now, the County Council voted to approve the resolution and to instruct Brower to support it in his role of representing Volusia County on the CFCRC.

“We’re stuck with an Edsel, and we need to see how we can make it run,” Johnson said.

As for Volusia County leaders’ fears of having to cover future higher costs for SunRail to operate in Orange County, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said that will not happen. Demings said his county will pay to run trains in the Sunshine Corridor, largely with a 1-cent local-option sales tax. He predicts a majority of Orange County’s voters will approve the tax in the Nov. 8 general election. If approved, the add-on sales tax may generate approximately $600 million per year in new revenue for transportation for 20 years.

“The Orange County sales tax will support the expansion within Orange County,” he told The Beacon. “This is a regional effort, and each of the partners will have to pay their proportionate share within their county.”

Demings expressed confidence the tax will be adopted at the polls. He said the tax has broad support throughout the county.

“Historically, this is the first time we’ve had support from labor unions,” he added.

For now, the FDOT is paying the operating and maintenance expenses of SunRail, but the state agency is supposed to hand off the system to the five local funding partners after the extension of service to DeLand.

Work on the completion of the rail line to DeLand has begun. The latest revised date for the completion of the laying of double tracks, installing lights and signals, making road crossings, and building a SunRail depot next to the DeLand Amtrak station is the summer of 2024, SunRail CEO Mike Heffinger told the CFCRC Sept. 22. The capital improvements in the 12-mile segment of the rail corridor between DeBary and DeLand will cost an estimated $34.2 million, and Volusia County is obligated to pay 25 percent of that bill.


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