110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
By Pat Andrews
posted Sep 21, 2012 - 6:03:15pm
History has a way of repeating itself.
Take, for example, the railways. Initially opposed by turnpike operators, canal companies, stagecoach companies, and others whose businesses were threatened by the new form of transportation in the early and mid-19th century, the railroads nevertheless became important to U.S. commerce and history.
As trucks and passenger cars gained a foothold, trains fell out of favor. Passenger stations crumbled and disappeared. The actual steel rails were lifted; some of their paths became part of the Rails to Trails Conservancy program in Florida.
Now, passenger service is making a comeback in Central Florida, in the form of commuter rail. It’s good business practice, governmental decision-makers say, because of fundamental shifts occurring in the housing market.
According to the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, which is sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, the most quickly growing demographic groups — older, single or childless, and non-white people — have historically used transit in higher numbers.
The first phase of Central Florida’s SunRail should be complete in May 2014, with service from DeBary to Sand Lake Road in Orlando. When the second phase is completed in May 2016, the commuter train will run 61 miles, serving 17 stations, from the DeLand Amtrak station to the station at Poinciana.
On Sept. 14, Realtors and city and county officials from across Central Florida got a taste of a SunRail trip, with a ride along the entire SunRail route from DeLand to Kissimmee on an Amtrak train, as SunRail’s cars are not yet built. Florida Hospital and the Orlando Regional Realtor Association sponsored the event.
Why the sponsorship? One station is being built beside the Florida Hospital complex in Orlando, where many Central Floridians travel for specialized treatment. As the population ages, many people would rather ride a commuter train to get to the hospital rather than drive. Florida Hospital wants to get them to Orlando.
The Realtor Association sees sales opportunities in the new development areas, for both residential properties and businesses that want to be near the rails. SunRail wants the Realtors to promote this development, so it’s a win-win situation for both.
SunRail got its start when the Florida Department of Transportation looked at planning needs.
Over lunch in Kissimmee, DOT District 5 Secretary Noranne Downs told the group that when DOT planners looked at needed roads and road improvements for the future, they saw “bloody red maps” of roads criss-crossing each other and backed up with traffic.
It would cost $6 billion to repair and maintain roads in the corridor, and by 2050, the projected map looked like red spaghetti, with a project cost of $35 billion in today’s dollars to build and maintain the needed roads to move people through the Central Florida corridor on and around Interstate 4.
DOT estimates the cost to build SunRail and maintain it through 2030 at around $1.3 billion, including $432 million to purchase the rail corridor from CSX, and $615 million to design and build the commuter system.
The federal government is paying half the cost; the state is paying 25 percent, including $66 million for operating subsidies; and the other 25 percent of cost is divided among the partnering counties of Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola and the City of Orlando. Gasoline taxes are supposed to fund the local shares.
Volusia’s share is $25.6 million in capital costs, and $7.39 million in operational costs in the first decade after the state’s obligation comes to an end.
After the first seven years, the local partners will be responsible for any overruns in operations and maintenance costs.
While government will pay for the rail system and do the necessary land-use regulation and rezoning, private enterprise is expected to create what’s called “transit-oriented development,” or TOD, around the SunRail stations.
Larry Adams, president of ACi Orlando, told the group transit-oriented development is purpose-driven development, making for purpose-driven economics, rather than scattered and unplanned sprawl.
It’s part of a back-to-the-city trend after years of middle-class flight to the suburbs, with resulting commuter traffic jams and high fuel costs. It’s part of a move toward consolidating people in an urban center, and keeping green and agricultural areas undeveloped.
SunRail will provide a transportation spine. So, how will commuters get to the businesses once they alight from the commuter train? Many businesses will be within walking distance — walkability is a key component of transit-oriented development.
Other forms of transportation, including Votran in Volusia County and Lynx rapid-transit bus service in Orange County, will expand, and adjust routes to stop at SunRail stations, for example. Both stations and trains will accommodate bicycle storage. Taxi service and shuttles will be available.
Plans for development around the stations have been drawn up by the local jurisdictions, and will reflect local flavor and needs.
DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar didn’t take the sneak-peek ride on SunRail’s route, but he saw travelers off from the journey’s start in DeLand.
“We’ve been planning two years for the development and the train station, to complement SunRail. It’s good all of us are looking to the future,” Apgar said.
And, calling alternate forms of transportation essential, Apgar said, “We’ve got to quit the I-4 gridlock.”
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