Suddenly, after years of on-again/off-again/on-again conversations about extending SunRail to DeLand, there is a fresh initiative to do just that — and Volusia County leaders showed July 16 they are ready to pay.
The Florida Department of Transportation has informed the county government in writing that federal assistance may be available to finish the 61-mile commuter-rail line by laying another set of tracks between DeBary and DeLand, making DeLand the system’s northern terminus.
The segment is 12 miles, and the cost of double tracking, along with installing new signals, improving rail crossings and building a SunRail depot at or adjacent to the DeLand Amtrak station, is currently estimated at approximately $77 million.
The FDOT required quick action of the County Council.
“All of a sudden we get a letter on the 12th [of July], and they want an answer on the 17th,” Council Member Billie Wheeler said.
The letter, signed and sent by SunRail Chief Executive Officer Nicola Liquori, said Florida Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault “outlined a potential opportunity.”
Wheeler cautioned her peers about the wording.
“A potential opportunity — it’s still not there,” she said.
The letter highlighted the prospect of redistributing federal funds normally used for highway projects to SunRail. It called upon the county and FDOT “to promptly take specific actions” to apply for the newfound source of federal funding.
The council had to act quickly, and it did.
The answer FDOT wanted — and got — was a commitment to pay about one-quarter of the expense, or $19.3 million.
“They [FDOT] are going to use their 25 percent and the federal 50 percent,” County Attorney Dan Eckert told the County Council. “They’re going to be paying more than 75 percent.”
County Chair Ed Kelley noted Volusia County is already committed as a contractual partner in the SunRail venture.
Volusia is one of five local partners — along with the counties of Seminole, Orange and Osceola and the City of Orlando — that are destined to own, operate and maintain SunRail in 2021, unless the local partners can convince the FDOT to delay the transfer of ownership, along with its costs and responsibilities.
The County Council voted to send a letter to the FDOT that confirms the county’s commitment, but asks that the handoff of ownership be delayed, since the system has been operating for about five years with only 1.5 miles of line double-tracked in Volusia County.
The original plan was that the state would bear the costs of operating the full system for seven years, Volusia County officials pointed out.
Council Member Deborah Denys recalled the county’s 2007 decision to join with its neighbors to establish the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission and said, “The state will get the money from us one way or another. ... We have a contract.”
None of the current County Council members were on the council when the agreements were ratified.
If Volusia County fails to pay its share of the rail project’s cost, the FDOT could withhold future funding for roads.
“The frustrating thing with this is, they’re holding all of the cards,” Denys said. “We need all the dollars we can get for highways.”
Deputy County Manager Donna de Peyster said she “wouldn’t be surprised” if the state agency asks the county for additional money later.
In fact, Kelley said the final cost of the SunRail extension to DeLand may actually be between $80 million and $100 million.
To obtain its share of the SunRail project’s cost, de Peyster said Volusia may borrow from the State Infrastructure Bank, whose interest rates may be “between 2 and 3 percent.”
“They’re usually 10-year notes,” she said.
The council voted unanimously to borrow cash for the completion of the double-rail link from DeBary to DeLand, even though the additional miles of track may become a maintenance responsibility for Volusia County and increase the county’s share of SunRail’s operating deficit.