A huge crowd turned out in front of Florida Hospital for the Community Kickoff ceremony welcoming SunRail to downtown Orlando. (Photo by Michael Freeman).
ORLANDO — Buddy Dyer can remember the warning he got from Ray LaHood, the nation’s transportation secretary, back in 2009 when Florida lawmakers were debating whether to approve SunRail, a light rail system crossing four counties in Central Florida — with the promise of federal money to help build it.
“He said, ‘Florida, you need to get your act together,’ ” said Dyer, a major SunRail supporter.
As it turns out, Florida’s lawmakers and the new govenor, Rick Scott, both decided to approve SunRail, and this afternoon, Dyer and LaHood gathered before a huge crowd at Florida Hospital to celebrate a Community Kickoff ceremony for this project, at the site where one of the rail stations will be built.
“Secretary LaHood, I hope Central Florida has made you proud,” the mayor said as he introduced LaHood to the crowd. LaHood said the entire region collectively had reason to be proud.
“I come here today to say congratulations to all of you,” LaHood said. “You are celebrating the ‘vision thing’ today, and I say congratulations to all of you. Mayor Dyer is right — you get your act together, and unbelievable things will happen.”
Once the project has been built, SunRail will be a 61-mile passenger light rail system that will start in Debary in Volusia County, cross through Seminole County into downtown Orlando, and then continue into Osceola County, with a final stop in Poinciana. There will be 17 stops along the way, including the one at Florida Hospital on Princeton Avenue.
“This is obviously a very important stop with a large number of jobs and a large number of trips made every day,” said Lars Houmann, president and chief executive officer of Florida Hospital.
In addition to bringing a SunRail station to the neighborhood, Houmann announced that his hospital was committed to constructing a 90,000-square-foot office building here, one that will become the hospital’s headquarters. That project will also bring more jobs — and some much-needed economic revitalization — to the city, he said.
“These are the days that we live for,” Dyer said, adding that he thinks the SunRail project will help “change the culture in Central Florida” from one of parochialism to communities working together to promote shared interests.
“SunRail is becoming a reality because our governments stood together in historic fashion,” he said, “as we create a better future for Central Florida.”
Dyer said the project would attract new companies to the city, create thousands of new jobs during the construction phase, and will result in “people saving time because they’re not stuck on I-4.” It would also encourage train riders to stop here, get out and explore the city, potentially bringing more tourists to Orlando as well.
“Orlando is a more walkable and liveable city, and that is the future in this city,” Dyer said.
Both Dyer and LaHood emphasized that this was a bipartisan project, with the support of both the Obama administration and Florida’s Republican governor. To emphasize that bipartisan approach, the two congressmen considered crucial in getting federal support for SunRail — Republican John Mica of Winter Park and Democrat Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, whose district includes parts of Orlando — were on hand for the ceremony.
“I predict thousands of jobs and taking heavy traffic off our interstate,” Mica said, as he also praised CSX Corporation, the international transportation company that agreed to let the region use its freight tracks for a passenger light rail system.
“They didn’t want to sell us this line, and we thought it would be better to take freight off this line and put passengers on it,” Mica said.
“We really had to work with them, good cop and bad cop, to bring them on board,” Brown said of CSX, “but this really is going to be great. This is totally an example of a partnership that works. Give yourself a hand, everybody that has done something to help this.”
Brown said the project would almost certainly put a real dent in Florida’s lingering double-digit jobless rate.
“I think about the fact that Florida has 11 percent unemployment, and we’re going to put 11,000 people to work,” she said. “I’m just so excited for the people of Florida and Central Florida.”
Although SunRail will cover four counties, Mica said it could include others in the future. The congressman said he recently met with municipal leaders in Flagler County who are interested in having SunRail extended to their community as well.
“We’re going to build it as of today,” Mica said. “The next question is who gets the next leg when the building (work) is over?”
Not everyone was convinced this project has merit — particularly in the long run. James Fraleigh of Casselberry attended the ceremony by holding up a sign that read “Have a Brain — No Train.” He said the project would never attract the high number of riders that its supporters envision, and he prdicted it would follow the example of other commuter rail projects that have lost money as local commuters stick with driving their cars.
“This is going to be in the same boat,” he said. “This is a lead balloon.”

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