ORLANDO – James Fraleigh traveled from Casselberry to downtown Orlando on Monday, to take part in a community celebration organized to mark the groundbreaking of the SunRail light rail system.
What he discovered, though, was that he couldn’t mingle much with the huge crowd that was congregating next to a stage in front of Florida Hospital, the site of one of the 17 stops that SunRail will make as it brings passengers from Debary in Volusia County to Orlando and then on to Poinciana. In fact, Fraleigh said, he was told by security to stay away from the crowd, at least several feet from everyone else. He shrugged off the insult.
“I’ve got a backbone,” Fraleigh said. “If you notice, they made me stand back here.”
Looking at the huge crowd in front of the stage, in an area roped off with participants passing by Orlando Police officers on their way in, Fraleigh shrugged and said, “They call that the VIP zone – and I’m a very important person, too.”
The reason he got pushed away from the crowd, Fraleigh said, is that he showed up with the wrong message. Most of the people attending Monday’s Community Kickoff press conference were there to applaud as Mayor Buddy Dyer, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, U.S. Rep. John Mica and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs praised the jobs and economic development that they expect SunRail to bring to the region.
Fraleigh, though, had a very different message, indeed, one highlighted by a sign he held up that read “Have a Brain – No Train.”
The taxpayers, he warned, were going to be the big losers in the long run, when SunRail gets built, since he expects few if any commuters will bother to climb on board. He also predicted that the four counties hosting it – Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia – get stuck with the long-term maintenance costs of operating it.
“It’s like the Mount Dora dinner train,” Fraleigh said. “They ran that. Where is it now?”
Like most other trains in Florida, he said – either no longer operating, or struggling financially.
“Look at all the tracks around Florida that went bust,” Fraleigh said. “This is going to be like all of those.”
For the past few years, supporters and opponents of train systems have been duking it out across the region, with proponents insisting that trains prodive alternative means of transportation that reenergize the regional economy and bring thousands of jobs here, while opponents see these systems as lead balloons that will saddle taxpayers with high long term maintenance costs to support empty trains in a state where the car is still king.
So far this year, both sides have scored victories. First, Gov. Rick Scott rejected federal funding from the Obama administration’s stimulus package to help pay for a high speed train from Orlando to Tampa, which the governor said would be too costly for Florida taxpayers to support. The governor also said ridership was unlikely to be as strong as the supporters were claiming, providing a key victory for rail opponents like Fraleigh.
But earlier this month, the governor signed on to SunRail, after sending his transportation secretary, Ananth Prasad, to host a series of public workshops on the project. Monday’s Community Kickoff was an opportunity for supporters to cheer the final approval of SunRail, and to welcome a check from LaHood for $50 million from the federal government to help get the construction work started.
Dyer, a strong supporter of the rail line and the chairman of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission, acknowledged it had been a long, tough battle to get SunRail approved.
“When I took that job, I thought it was a quick lap around the Florida Legislature,” the mayor said. “It turned out to be a bit longer than that.”
But opponents like Fraleigh still think the state is making a costly mistake, and they’re not shy about saying so.
“We’re not a dense enough population to support this train,” he said. “I’ve never supported it. It’s going to ruin our Lynx bus system as we know it now. You can’t have funds going to both of them.”
So during the Community Kickoff, Fraleigh stayed several feet from the crowd, talking to anyone who wanted to hear his views on the projects.
“I’ll stand back here and I’ll still smile,” he said, “and I’ll still hold my sign.”
SunRail is a 61-mile light rail system that will cross the four counties, ending in Poinciana. Community residents think SunRail will provide a big economic boost to the ailing economy in the community of 70,000 residents that crosses Polk and Osceola counties.
Fernando Valverde, a resident of Poinciana and SunRail supporter, is asking regional leaders to hold a similar Community Kickoff event at the site near Orange Blossom Trail and Poinciana Boulevard where the local train station is expected to get built.
Valverde called the approval of Sunrail “the beginning of a turn around of the economy in the Poinciana area,” and added, “This creative project will assure the community of the firm commitment of both private enterprise and public agencies so that this creative dream comes true. It will help jump start the residential and commercial development” around the Poinciana station.
“We are requesting that such a special community celebration as this one today at the Florida Hospital‘s future station stop be held at the Poinciana station that is to be built adjacent to the Home Depot store close to the Poinciana Industrial Park,” he said. “Bottom line, what is being made possible is hope for the citizenship that better times are coming and that a silver lining may be in our state’s future.”
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