May Day! May 1, 2021, is when the Florida Department of Transportation is supposed to relinquish ownership and control of the commuter-rail system known as SunRail.
In less than 12 months, Volusia County and its four funding partners in the mass-transit venture — Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando — are slated to become responsible for SunRail’s costs.
Volusia County has asked for a modification, because the system was never extended to DeLand. But the modification, if any, is still being negotiated.
“The partners are looking at us to be a partner,” Volusia County Manager George Recktenwald said.
Recktenwald said he believes the SunRail partners will ask the FDOT to delay the handoff, given the absence of a transition plan and the havoc wrought by the coronavirus.
The topic is expected to dominate a meeting of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission set for 3 p.m. Thursday, May 28. The commission consists of the top elected leaders of each of the five local governments participating in SunRail. The meeting will be conducted virtually.
A little history
Under the interlocal agreements ratified by each of the partner governments in 2007, the FDOT would operate and pay the system’s costs and related expenses for the first seven years. Operations began May 1, 2014, and now, all of a sudden, the transition date is nearing.
The clock is ticking. Time is running out to arrange a transition, and there is no transition plan in place. What comes next?
“At the next meeting, they’re going to discuss bringing on a consultant,” Recktenwald said.
The outside expert may charge the CFCRC approximately $1 million to analyze SunRail and draft a blueprint for the local partners to own and run it.
Volusia County will be responsible for paying about 20 percent of the consultant’s contract, or about $200,000, according to Recktenwald.
SunRail now has about 49 miles of double tracks between DeBary and Poinciana. The state owns 61 miles of the rail corridor purchased from CSX, with an additional 12 miles of corridor destined for double tracking if SunRail service is extended northward to DeLand.
The original SunRail agreements were based on DeLand, not DeBary, being the northern terminus.
Delays in securing funds have pushed the price tag of laying the second set of tracks and building a SunRail depot next to the DeLand Amtrak station to nearly $100 million.
The FDOT has a promise of some $34 million from the Federal Transit Administration — funding that was shifted from the Federal Highway Administration — to pay some of the capital costs of bringing SunRail to DeLand, if there is sufficient political will to do so.
“The $34 million from the FTA was pledged for capital improvements,” Interim SunRail CEO Jared Perdue said.
Volusia County would be responsible for paying about $20 million of the estimated $100 million.
How much will Volusia owe?
SunRail has failed to measure up to the expectations of its early proponents.
The prospect of finishing the system with DeLand as the northern terminus would also mean Volusia County would incur higher bills for SunRail.
For example, there are now about 1.5 miles of SunRail double tracks in Volusia County between the St. Johns River and DeBary. That is approximately 3 percent of the now-almost-50-mile system.
With extra track mileage comes higher cost. Indeed, the seemingly bleak financial picture of SunRail prompted Volusia County Chair Ed Kelley last fall to propose that Volusia withdraw from the consortium. Kelley’s wish for Volusia to exit from the SunRail commitments got the attention of his colleagues on the CFCRC, as they sensed they may be obligated to take up the slack created by Volusia County’s absence.
In exchange for being relieved of many of SunRail’s operating and maintenance costs, Kelley promised Volusia County would maintain the DeBary SunRail station.
Although the talk about secession has subsided, and Kelley and other Volusia County officials say they are willing to be part of the post-FDOT SunRail, they also express worries about the regional rail system’s mounting expenses ahead.
Volusia’s share of the annual operating deficits has not yet been determined.
“We knew there would be a deficit, but at that time , the deficit was to be about $7 million,” Recktenwald said. “The actual deficit is $40 million — very concerning to us.”
That deficit number comes from subtracting the annual cost of operating SunRail, which totals about $58.1 million, from the system’s revenues.
SunRail’s revenues, mostly federal and state grants along with advertising and fares, amount to approximately $18.1 million. The fares paid by passengers, incidentally, cover only 5 percent of the system’s operating cost.
All this looms over Volusia County and its SunRail partners as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, albeit at a slower pace, but with the prospect of another wave later this year or early next.
The disease has already devastated millions of families, whose breadwinners have been thrown out of work. Businesses — especially in the travel, hospitality and retail sectors — were forced to close for months before recently being allowed to reopen at a reduced capacity.
The state and county, along with other states and their localities, face drastically lower collections of taxes on retail sales, restaurant tabs, gasoline and, probably, property, as people struggle to regain lost financial ground.
Even well before the pandemic struck, members of the CFCRC acknowledged there was no plan for the transition of ownership of SunRail.
Nevertheless, county officials say they are willing to be part of the change of SunRail’s ownership.
“I support us being part of the transition,” County Council Member Barb Girtman said.
“We are not railroad people, so we need to have somebody look at the system,” Recktenwald concluded.