Here comes the SunRail: The future of commuter trains in Central Florida

The top priority of the 61-mile-long system is to figure out who will run it in the near future.

A view of a SunRail station with a train at the station platform with its conductor and a crew member.

A view of a SunRail station with a train at the station platform with its conductor and a crew member. Photo by Jeff Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Even while it struggles to attract riders, the SunRail commuter train running through Central Florida has expansion plans that could easily cost a billion dollars or more.

The good news is there appears to be plenty of federal, state and private cash available for mass transit systems. And SunRail is part of several studies that have been launched to see if a longer, more frequently run network could qualify for money. Potential sources include:

— The $1.2 trillion infrastructure act Congress passed last year. More than $200 billion has been set aside for transit and passenger rail during the next five years.

— A proposed penny increase to the sales tax in Orange County that is on the ballot this fall. If passed, some $600 million would be available annually for transportation issues.

— A possible collaboration between SunRail and Brightline, the privately financed rail line that is about to link Miami with Orlando International Airport. The two systems are talking about a $1-billion-plus effort dubbed the Sunshine Corridor to connect the airport with SunRail, the International Drive swath of hotels, restaurants and attractions and Universal Studios Florida. A stop near Disney World also has been discussed.

“… Taken together, the three integrated stations provide access to the largest economic and employment centers in Central Florida and offer the best opportunity for the success of Brightline and SunRail,” says Ben Porritt, senior vice president of Brightline’s corporate affairs, in a statement. “This concept was recently awarded a federal grant to assist in its advancement and as an indication of its potential to drive regional impact. We look forward to working with all key stakeholders on expanding smart mobility that connects Orlando to the rest of Florida.”

During a recent SunRail committee meeting, Universal and International Drive interests revealed they were willing to set aside 13 acres for a station, $125 million for rail and station construction, along with $13 million in yearly ticket sales and $2 million annually for maintenance. But SunRail board member and assistant Osceola County Manager Tawny Olore cautions that the top priority of the 61-mile-long system right now is to figure out who will run the operation in the near future: “First things first,” she says. “We transition.” 

Olore was referring to the expected mid-2024 handover from the state Department of Transportation to the five local governments that will in essence own SunRail. Since its inception in 2014, SunRail has been run by FDOT. It was part of an agreement to offer Central Florida travelers an alternative to riding on Interstate 4 while the highway underwent a massive $2.3 billion overhaul. The so-called I-4 Ultimate is now complete, which means FDOT will hand SunRail to a consortium of Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties and the city of Orlando. The annual SunRail budget is about $86 million.

The SunRail board has commissioned a study to determine how best to run the train once the state relinquishes it. Among the possibilities is handing it over to Lynx, the regional bus system. Another is creating a new agency to oversee Lynx, SunRail and – though it seems unlikely – the Central Florida Expressway Authority, which owns and operates a 125-mile network of toll roads in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties, plus Orlando.

The backdrop to all the planning is a smaller-than-expected ridership. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, SunRail was carrying nearly 7,000 passengers daily during its Monday-Friday schedule. That was in February 2020. The passenger count fell to about 1,000 a day by April 2020. Now, the numbers have inched up to about 3,500 a day. High gasoline prices and the decline of COVID are bringing back more passengers, as well as workers returning to their offices, Olore says.

“It is creeping back up,” Olore says. “You don’t see spikes.”

Renzo Nastasi, Orange County’s transportation planning manager, says SunRail would experience a surge of riders if plans come through for the Sunshine Corridor. Thousands of people who work at the airport, International Drive and Universal would likely ride, he predicted. But he does not advise booking a ticket anytime soon. 

Five years could pass before the Sunshine Corridor becomes a reality, he says, cautioning that would happen only “if everything goes right.”

Dan Tracy was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel for 35 years, covering numerous beats including transportation, City Hall, state and local politics, business and long-term projects, and is an expert on the Central Florida scene.

NEXT STORY: Moving on: Florida saw rise in people relocating to state during the pandemic

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