WINTER PARK – With a high speed rail train now out of the picture, opponents of the SunRail commuter rail line are trying to show Gov. Rick Scott that there’s a united front against this project.
“I think that money could be far better spent on economic development initiatives,” said former Winter Park City Commissioner Beth Dillaha. “It’s just not a good project.”
But what the opponents still don’t know is whether the governor will reject this project as he did with the proposed high speed train from Orlando to Tampa. The governor brought this project to a halt when he turned down federal funds to help pay for it.
The governor has not said whether he takes a similar attitude toward SunRail, a 61-mile commuter rail line that would run from Debary in Volusia County to downtown Orlando, and then to Poinciana.
“That’s the million dollar question,” Dillaha said. “No one really knows where he is going to come down on the commuter rail project. In my mind I think he would use the same criteria that he used on high speed rail and veto the SunRail project, but it’s just hard to know.”
Dillaha was instrumental in helping to form a coalition of past and current elected representatives, groups, anti-tax organizations and individuals who oppose SunRail. Their mission to is alert the governor that this coalition – known as VETO SunRail (Voters Expressing Their Opposition to SunRail) – has a lot of members across the state who are urging him to kill this project and not saddle Floridians with long term maintenance costs.
The coalition includes Ax the Tax, the anti-tax organization; the Florida Taxpayers Union; the Campaign for Liberty; dozens of local Tea Party chapters; and 912 other organizations.
“The mission was twofold,” Dillaha said. “Number one was to bring everyone together to convey the message to Floridians and taxpayers about why we are opposing this project, and then number two is to have a more united front in commnunicating with the governor and Tallahassee. Not everyone in Central Florida is in favor of this project. We decided that those of us who have been opposing this for so long should really just come together with the goal of communicating collectively. There really has not been a coming together of those entities to communicate to Tallahassee.”
Supporters of SunRail have argued that it will create badly needed construction jobs at a time when Central Florida’s unemployment rate remains in double digits.
Dillaha disputes that claim.
“In 2008, the FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) had a report on jobs, and it showed that there would be a total of 400 jobs that would be created as a result of the project,” he said. “Now what FDOT is saying is 10,000 to 11,000 jobs, but those are jobs for the next 30 years, so it’s extremely misleading to the public. The number of jobs created will be very few, and they’re temporary construction jobs.”
SunRail advocates also say the state needs more transportation options to relieve congestion on highways like Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike, and that a more sophisticated system of transportation options – such as a commuter rail line that links commuters to shuttle vans, buses and other ways of getting around – will make this region more attractive to businesses and newcomers alike.
Winter Park City Commissioner Steve Leary said there are a lot of reasons to keep supporting SunRail, including the economc benefits it would bring to Orange County.
“I’ve very supportive of rail,” he said. “This town was founded on a rail line. It’s part of our history.”
Leary said SunRail would bring more customers to Winter Park’s popular Park Avenue shopping district.
“One of the issues in Winter Park is parking, so rail brings customers to our downtown,” he said, adding that SunRail opponents “call downtown our crown jewel, but then they do everything in their power to stifle business in downtown.”
In the end, Leary said, the rail line will mean more traffic — and riders with money to spend here — coming to Orange County.
But Dillaha said those claims are likewise overstated, since the Florida Legislature is facing a $3 billion budget hole. Gov. Scott has also proposed an additional $2 billion in property tax relief and cuts in corporate taxes, meaning lawmakers would have to eliminate up to $5 billion from the state budget this year. With that kind of pressure, she said, SunRail is too costly, with no guarantee of a strong or steady ridership.
“If you have revenue continuing to decline, but you add on projects with no funding source, how do you make ends meet?” she asked. “A project like SunRail will have to be paid for through general funds. It means you’re going to have to reduce those services to the people to pay for a commuter rail project. That’s the big quetsion. You’re going to reduce state and local revenue, but add on a project like that?”
Dillaha said she was opposed to the project even though Winter Park has been designated as one of the proposed stops along the track. She also noted that the Federal Transit Authority evaluated the project in 2007 and proclaimed it was “not cost effective” and “will not serve the I-4 corridor.”
Finally, she said no long term funding source has been established to operate and maintain the system once it’s been built. It has a $1.2 billion start-up cost.
Based on that, the coalition is urging all Florida taxpayers to contact the governor and urge him to reject SunRail. Their Web site is www.VETOSUNRAIL.org.
“Density has to increase tremendously around commuter rail stations to offset the cost,” Dillaha said. “So calling this a big economic development stimulatior is not accurate. Why would we use 19th century diesel technology for a rail system when there’s new technology coming out all the time?”
A better solution, she said, would be to invest in high occupancy vehicle lanes on the state roadways to relieve traffic congestion.
“That hasn’t been looked into,” she said. “I understand people don’t like congestion – I don’t either. But with the commuter rail project, what people don’t understand is that once you get off the train, you have to find some other form of transportation to get you to your location.”
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