Supporters and opponents of the SunRail project line up to testify in the Orlando City Commission chambers. (Photo by Michael Freeman).
ORLANDO – SunRail, the proposed commuter rail line, could pump millions of dollars into the regional economy, providing a much-needed economic investment at a time when the state remains mired in a double-digit unemployment rate, Ananth Prasad, the secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, told the Orlando City Council today.
And if not enough people ride the commuter rail, he cautioned, it could seriously hurt funding for other local projects.
During a public hearing in Orlando City Hall, Prasad indicated that the community needs to carefully weigh the pro’s and cons of building SunRail, a 61-mile rail line that would run from Volusia County to downtown Orlando and then on to Poinciana. At the request of the governor’s office, Prasad conducted a series of public meetings today on this project, taking public testimony from local residents before Gov. Rick Scott decides whether to give the green light to, or pull the plug on, this project.
And while supporters and opponents of SunRail both lined up to have their say, Prasad similarly offered a mixed message that indicated the possibility for short term gains as SunRail is getting built, potentially countered by long-term problems if too few riders use the rail system.
“Should SunRail fail to meet or exceed ridership, other projects will be affected,” Prasad said.
On the other hand, he also noted that the governor’s office has been contacted vigorously by business owners eager to see SunRail get built, and pledging to invest heavily in the neighborhoods that host SunRail stations.
“Various private businesses have made commitments to Governor Scott to develop around the stations,” Pradad said, adding that at least during the construction phase, this could “invest hundreds of millions into communities” that SunRail goes through, including Orlando and Poinciana.
He also noted that the public sector was working with those business owners to ensure the ridership goals are met, including in Orlando.
“The city is in direct talks with local businesses to entice employees to use SunRail,” he said.
That’s what’s going to be needed to make SunRail a success, Prasad said in his opening comments – local governments and businesses working together to promote the rail line and get people on it. Without that support, he said, the project would face an uphill challenge in the long term.
That’s a worry that SunRail’s opponents have. Former Orange County mayoral candidate Matt Falconer said there’s no indication that area residents want to get out of their cars and into a train that takes passengers from downtown Orlando to either Volusia or Osceola counties.
“There is demand for air travel,” Falconer said. “There is demand for highways. There is no demand for government-sponsored rail.”
As a cost of more than $1.3 billion, Falconer said the project will be an expensive flop if it gets the green light.
“What SunRail is really about is bringing home the bacon,” he said.
Tourists ride the Monorail when they visit Walt Disney World. But will local residents ride SunRail if it gets built? (Photo by Steve Schwartz).
Doug Guetzloe, founder of the Ax the Tax grassroots organization, noted that Orlando city commissioners have been debating a local light rail system for more than a decade, and each time in the past asked voters to decide if they want it. Ax the Tax has opposed each ballot referendum to generate funding for a rail system, and each time won that debate.
“Elements of commuter rail and light rail have been on the ballot in some form four times,” Guetzloe said, and always lost.
SunRail was approved by the Florida Legislature but still needs the support of Gov. Scott to move forward. Guetzloe said supporters should once again ask voters decide if they want to fund it.
“I suggest that this council should put this issue on the ballot,” he said. “Let’s go ahead and put our money where your mouth is and put this on the ballot and let the voters decide.”
Guetzloe predicted the voters would reject it — once again.
“This is not a system that moves people,” he said. “It’s not worth $2 billion. You might as well give each rider a helicopter. It would be cheaper.”
Supporters, though, said this project is badly needed in a region where traffic is becoming more congested, with few other options readily available to relieve it.
“It will save us money, because the alternatives to commuter rail are so expensive,” said state Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne.
Former state Sen. Lee Constantine, an Altamonte Springs Republican, added, “It’s going to be a wonderful day when this thing — hopefully — finally gets approved. Folks, there is no alternative. The alternative – another lane on I-4 – would cost three times as much and would take years to complete, and would just get clogged all over again.”
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, agreed, saying “One new lane in Central Florida will not help us.” Brown said a recent trip she made to Salt Lake City, Utah, demonstrated that their local rail system is operating well.
Supporters of the SunRail project say jobs, jobs, jobs when promoting it, as this sign posted in front of Orlando City Hall does. (Photo by Michael Freeman).
“They are running 40,000 people a day,” Brown said. “Transportation is really the engine that drives economic development.”
Cheryl Stone made a personal plea. Testifying in a wheelchair, and unable to reach the microphone set atop the podium for those testifying before the council, Stone said “I support SunRail because it provides another alternative means of transportation for people like myself living with disabilities.”
Finding a job is always difficult for the disabled, she said, adding that SunRail will give them a great option for getting back and forth to employment opportunities.
“For us to be able to have transportation to get a job and keep a job is paramount,” Stone said.
Marc Reicher, the senior vice president of operations for Rida Associates, which built the ChamionsGate development in Osceola County, testified that Rida is planning to construct a Central Station for the Lynx bus system and an accompanying Central Station for SunRail in Osceola County if the project moves forward. There are SunRail stops planned at both Celebration and the Poinciana Industrial Park.
Reicher said these stations alone would generate $200 million in revenue.
“That’s a lot of taxes,” he said.
It would also create 100 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent jobs because of the development that would cluster around the stations.
“The approval of SunRail is critical to this project,” Reicher said.
But opponents like former Winter Park city commissioner Beth Dillaha cautioned that even with the short term business investments, SunRail was too small a project to bring motorists off Interstate 4, but too costly to ever pay back its initial investment.
“This is not mass transit,” she said. “It will not move a lot of people around.”
Several critics of the project wore bright-red “DeRail SunRail” T-shirts to the workshop. When at least one critic tried to testify in Orlando after also speaking at an earlier workshop with Prasad, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer cut him off.
“There are six meetings today, and we need to give as many people an opportunity to speak as possible,” said Dyer, a SunRail supporter. “That’s my perogative.”
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