HAINES CITY – Seated inside a café in downtown Haines City, Ed Smith watched the Amtrak train come through the city, then just as quickly disappear.
The Amtrak train, he noted, was on its way to the city of Lakeland, where it would stop.
“It’s been a long time since it stopped in Haines City,” Smith said. “It stops in Winter Haven and in Lakeland. Those are the only two stops it makes in Polk County.”
But there’s always the possibility that could change in the future, said Smith, a Polk County commissioner who lives in the neighboring town of Lake Alfred. The key to getting more passenger rail service in Polk County, he said, could rest on the success or failure of an ambitious project now under construction: SunRail.
“When it becomes fully operational, then I think you will hear some discussion on it in Polk County,” Smith said.
This isn’t the first time Polk County has looked into the possibility of bringing extended rail service to its residents, in a county that experienced a population surge in the past decade – particularly in Northeast Polk County, which underwent a building boom when the housing market was soaring between 2004 and 2007. Once-vacant citrus fields off U.S. 27 in Northeast Polk became home to brand new subdivisions with hundreds of families living there.
But the first project that got proposed – a high speed train that would have run from Orlando to Tampa, making stops in Polk County – died in 2011 when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the project. Even though the federal government would have financed a large portion of the train’s construction costs as part of the federal stimulus package, Scott said the long term maintenance costs of the train, to be financed by Florida tax dollars, would prove too costly over time.
The high speed bullet train, as it was called, would have included at least one stop in Polk County, in Lakeland.
However, a few months later Scott announced his support for SunRail, a local commuter rail line that had strong support from the Central Florida business community. Once operational, it will run would Debary in Volusia County to Orlando, making 18 stops in Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties, finally stopping at the intersection of Poinciana Boulevard and Orange Blossom Trail.
And while that stop is in Osceola County, Smith said if the train is successful and commuters get out of their cars and decide to ride it, a solid case could be made for extending the rail line into Polk.
SunRail is using existing tracks that the state purchased from CSX, the rail company, and CSX already has tracks that go through Polk, Smith noted – including the rail lines crossing through downtown Haines City, which neighbors Poinciana.
“There is a real desire to extend SunRail into Haines City,” said Keith Laytham, who lives on the Polk County side of Poinciana at Solivita, and is the president of Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, a civic group working to improve the community.
A strong supporter of SunRail, Laytham said extending the rail line into Polk County makes perfect sense, because a lot of residents of Northeast Polk work at the theme parks or in Orlando, and SunRail could take them off the highly congested Interstate 4, he said.
Laytham thinks SunRail will attract riders, making the case for extending it easier to sell.
“I think someday that will happen,” he said, adding that financing will be the biggest challenge.
“In order to get it extended into Polk County, the county would have to pony up the money,” Laytham said.
Since the first leg of SunRail won’t be operational until at least 2014, talk of finding the money to get it extended into Polk is premature, Smith said.
“There has been no discussion of it,” he said. “It’s just not operational yet.”
Still, Laytham noted that residents of Central Florida made it clear they supported SunRail, and so did local businesses, which is what convinced the governor to give the green light for construction to begin.
If residents of Poinciana, Haines City and Northeast Polk also want SunRail, Laytham said, they need to start making their voices heard as well.
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