ALTAMONTE SPRINGS – At exactly 9:56 a.m., an Amtrak train rolled across the tracks that cross the intersection of State Road 436 and Ronald Reagan Boulevard in Altamonte Springs. To the left of the tracks, on a wide open field, was a huge crowd of people who broke into cheers.
Looking out at the crowd, Ananth Prasad, Florida’s Department of Transportation secretary, said the people watching that Amtrak train pass by should congratulate themselves as well.
“Your grassroots support for this critical project is what makes it a reality,” he said. “The trains will be running and there will be service by May 2014.”
This morning, officials with FDOT and the Obama administration joined local leaders to break ground on the SunRail project at the future home of the Altamonte Springs station. SunRail is a 61.5-mile commuter rail transit project currently underway in Central Florida. The 31-mile first phase of SunRail will include 12 stations, linking DeBary to Sand Lake Road, south of Orlando.
Phase II will serve five additional stations, north to DeLand and south to Poinciana, the final stop on the line. Service is scheduled to begin in 2014 for this highly anticipated project, which is expected to pump billions of dollars into the regional economy. SunRail will cover four counties: Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia.
“It’s a great day in Central Florida, isn’t it?” said Noranne Downs, FDOT’s District 5 secretary. “This project took a village to make happen, and it doesn’t stop now. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”
Prasad noted that “Today marks not the beginning of construction, but the beginning of a new chapter in Central Florida.”
To win the full support of Prasad’s boss, Gov. Rick Scott, the region had to prove that the train would be successful and that people would ride it. Scott agreed to sign on to supporting SunRail after very strong lobbying from business leaders across Central Florida who said it would be vital to the region’s economic future.
“We’re still within budget and on time,” Prasad said. “As we get the construction going, our next challenge begins – convincing the people who live, work and play in the area to use SunRail. It’s very important that this train has to be successful for the future of Florida.”
Prasad urged the region’s political and business leaders to do everything possible to convince local residents and visitors to use SunRail, as often as possible, so it can be self-sustaining in the years ahead.
“We all have to lead,” he said. “We can talk all we want to, but we have to show leadership.”
In the meantime, he said, it won’t take long to get SunRail built, using existing lines that were sold to Florida by CSX Corporation.
“In just two years, SunRail trains are expecting to start rolling on these tracks, and there will be a station here to board the train,” Prasad said. “How about that?”
Yvette G. Taylor, secretary of the Federal Transit Authority, noted that the Obama administration had agreed to provide this project with $178 million to help get SunRail built.
“This is an incredible, exciting time for all of us,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, whose district includes parts of Orlando, noted that this project will mean more than just improved transportation options for area residents.
“This is economic development,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to put people to work.”
Around the globe, she noted, commuter rail stations serve as magnets for other businesses flocking to be close to the commuters riding the trains.
“Everywhere there is a project like this, there’s economic development around the station,” Brown said.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, agreed, noting that this project is badly needed in Central Florida, hard hit by the housing market crash.
“A lot of people have been hurting, people losing their homes and people having a very hard time,” Mica said. “There are a lot of folks who don’t have jobs. Everybody talks about jobs. Well, we’re doing it today. We’re talking about 10,000 to 15,000 people a year for the next two years who will have a job and an income.”
Besides that, Mica added, “You’re going to make a difference in how people get around the community.”
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer noted how long it’s taken – more than three decades – to get to the groundbreaking.
“It’s a great day,” Dyer said. “The journey has been long, but it’s been worth the ride.”
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs agreed with that point, and said “Many of you know, it feels easy today, but it wasn’t easy getting there.”
Dyer said he fully expects Central Florida’s business leaders to support this project and convince their employees to use it by offering them special incentives if they do. Likewise, the mayor said the business community is already eyeing the local SunRail stations as locations for new investments.
“The business community stood with government to articulate the need for SunRail,” Dyer said. “Since we have made the announcement, there has been over half a billion dollars in investments that have been announced, and that is because of SunRail.”
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