The Beacon answers some questions about the SunRail system and its future:
Q. What was the original plan for SunRail, and when did Volusia County sign on?
The Volusia County Council and the other partners ratified the commuter-rail agreements in 2007. There was an understanding that DeLand would be the northern terminus and Poinciana would be the southern endpoint.
The 61-mile project was divided into two principal parts: Phase 1, the 32 miles between DeBary and Sand Lake Road; and Phase 2, the north and south extensions. Later, Phase 2 was subdivided into two projects.
Phase 2 South covered the 17 miles between Sand Lake Road and Poinciana, while Phase 2 North would cover the almost 13 miles between DeBary and DeLand.
SunRail began regular daily service between DeBary and the Sand Lake Road station on May 1, 2014.
The southern segment was completed in 2017, but there is no DeBary-to-DeLand segment — and no funding or imminent plans for one.
Q. What does Volusia County want changed now?
Because the long-envisioned 61-mile system does not exist, Volusia County is calling for renegotiation of the original agreements. Unless those original charters are amended, county officials say, Volusia will be disproportionately burdened with the costs of a SunRail system that has only 1.5 miles of double tracks inside its borders.
“This county has taken the lead. We have put our concerns in writing,” County Manager George Recktenwald said.
Recktenwald said the best estimates of the likely SunRail ridership to or from DeLand are about 200 people daily — not enough to pay as much of the system costs as other segments provide. If the system is extended, the added costs would also likely fall onto the other funding partners.
“They have concerns about going to DeLand,” he said.
Q. What are some of the financial concerns?
One unexpected expense is coming in the form of an accident-prevention system now mandated by the federal government.
Positive Train Control, whose cost is not yet available, was not included in the original commuter-rail deliberations.
Volusia County Council Member Ben Johnson called it “an unfunded mandate.”
One of the biggest concerns is SunRail’s operating deficit, which is now just under $40 million a year.
When the project was approved by Volusia and its partners in 2007, the official projection of the 2020 deficit was $7.2 million — far below what is now reality.
“They really have not been able to explain how it got that way,” Recktenwald said. “They are many times over what we envisioned. We are deep in the red.”
“We’re already looking at a $40 million deficit,” Council Member Deborah Denys said. “It will be funded by our citizens and our general fund.”
Fares paid by SunRail riders provide about 5 percent of the system’s $58.1 million operating costs, leaving a big share to be subsidized by the state and federal governments — and the local partners in the coming years.
“It’s $23 for every rider, for each person,” Kelley said, referring to the average share of the cost per rider borne by the federal, state and local governmental partners.
Q. How much is Volusia County willing to contribute?
As matters now stand — without the DeLand service — Volusia County officials have offered to pay about $3.4 million annually for the operation and maintenance of the DeBary SunRail depot, as well as the 1.5 miles of double tracks between the St. Johns River and DeBary.
In addition, Volusia County may be responsible for paying $1.4 million per year for maintenance of the 11.2 miles of single railroad track between DeBary and DeLand. The FDOT owns the track and the 61 miles of the CSX corridor between DeLand and Poinciana, but Volusia County may be billed for maintenance of the 11.2-mile stretch.
If SunRail service is extended to DeLand, however, expenses increase markedly. The county will have to pay approximately $19.3 million to build the double tracking and a depot that would sit beside the DeLand Amtrak station. The county would probably borrow the money and repay it over a 15-year period, at about $1.6 million per year.
Volusia County would also incur maintenance and operating costs for the DeLand SunRail depot.
“I would love to see it go to DeLand, but there are so many issues,” Council Member Billie Wheeler said.
Q. What kind of changes would the county like to see in the agreements?
For one, unless the SunRail agreements are amended, the county will have to pick up the cost of operating “feeder” Votran bus service to and from the DeBary station in 2021.
If the DeLand SunRail stop becomes a reality, similar bus service may be added. The annual cost of busing SunRail riders to and from the DeBary station is about $740,000 — a cost the Florida Department of Transportation is currently covering.
Also, according to the agreements adopted in 2007, the FDOT is to pay the system’s capital, maintenance and operating expenses for seven years, ending May 1, 2021.
On that date, the FDOT is to hand over operation and payments for the system to the local funding partners. That latter date is fast approaching.
“We have less than 16 months, and there is no plan on the transition,” Kelley added.
Without some changes and careful attention ahead of time, Volusia County may have to pay millions of dollars more each year than officials had originally anticipated to keep the SunRail trains running.
County leaders hope the commuter-rail agreements can and will be amended to head off some of the money problems and set up a fairer way of sharing the system’s costs.
“Knowing that SunRail is out there, there is a big bill on the way,” County Manager Recktenwald said.
Q. Is Volusia County alone in asking for these changes?
The letter the county plans to write to Secretary Thibault will be formally offered to the other four local SunRail partners — Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando — at the upcoming meeting of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission, set for Thursday, Jan. 30.
The letter recognizes the absence of the promised extension of double tracking on the CSX rail corridor between DeBary and DeLand.
“For purposes of resolution of the DeBary-DeLand segment, there is consensus among the Local Government Partners that SunRail should continue to operate in its current configuration as a 49-mile commuter-rail system (Poinciana to DeBary) until such time as the partners agree on a specific course of action relative to the remaining 12-miles of track,” the draft letter reads.
County Chair Kelley said the DeLand extension of SunRail could still come about later.
If the Commuter Rail Commission adopts the letter, representatives of the funding partners will sign it and send it to Secretary Thibault.
Q. What’s the current thinking about the possibility of the DeLand extension?
The U.S. Department of Transportation allocated $34 million for construction of the DeBary-to-DeLand double-track segment and a DeLand depot. Volusia County’s letter calls upon Thibault to allocate that money for other SunRail capital costs, including bridges and trains.
The USDOT offered the money to the FDOT in 2019. The funding was redirected from the Federal Highway Administration to the Federal Transit Administration, as a possible means of defraying some of the cost of extending SunRail to DeLand.
However, the full cost of that rail extension is now estimated at approximately $100 million, and it may climb higher. Volusia County’s share of the cost would be about $19.2 million, an amount critics say is too high.
Council Member Barb Girtman, who represents the DeLand area on the County Council, has expressed support for the DeLand extension, despite the cost.
She commented after the County Council’s discussion.
“The way it was presented, there is no upside to SunRail going to DeLand,” Girtman said, adding she supports the letter.
Also at the meeting, a former FDOT employee called upon the County Council to consider the DeLand connection as a viable transportation option.
“As expensive as it is, it’s less expensive than continuing to clog up the roads,” Steve Tonjes of DeLand said.
Tonjes also chairs the DeLand Planning Board.