Today is a HUGE DAY in Orlando.
Today marks the first anniversary of the SunRail Commuter Rail line that stretches between DeBary and southern Orlando (Sand Lake Rd). Since the line’s opening, we’ve seen many positive and negative developments, as well as a good share of bashing from the rail haters (including Tea Party insiders and activists who continually call for the line to either be privatized or completely shut down). We’ve also seen the emergence of an advocacy group that is pushing for more service, including weekend service. As the Ultimate I-4 reconstruction project gets into major “tear up the roads” mode, SunRail will no doubt become a vital alternative for those wanting to escape the traffic headaches. In this post, I will look back at this past year of SunRail being in service and what achievements and hurdles it has faced, as well as what challenges remain as we head into 2016 and beyond.
First Year brings in largely mixed results
Like many passenger rail lines, when SunRail was first introduced with a period of fare-free service, tons and tons of people showed up (including myself). While many people showed up to be able to contemplate how SunRail would work into their daily commutes, some were on board trains simply for the fun of it. In fact, so many people arrived at the various stations during the fare-free period, that some riders had to be turned away due to trains becoming full. Once the revenue service began, ridership dropped and struggled to level out at more sustainable levels, creating the perfect climate for the various rail haters to come out of the woodwork and criticize SunRail for being a taxpayer boondoggle. Now that regular ridership has for the most part leveled out at sustainable levels, demand is steadily growing for more service. Many people complain in fact, about the fact that trains don’t run often enough and that there is no weekend service. The advocacy group, the SunRail Riders, have been working to change this picture by advocating for more service on the train – including weekend service. And while the SunRail Riders have done an excellent job at standing up for more transportation choices in metro Orlando, getting more service on SunRail has by far been the biggest challenge.
In December of last year, FDOT announced that they would add a late evening round trip, allowing weekday service to end during the 11PM hour instead of the 9PM hour. This run, which the SunRail Riders call the #NightTrain, has been popular with commuters coming off from work later in the evening, as well as those going home from sporting events, and those wanting to spend an extra hour or two hanging out in downtown Orlando after dinner. SunRail officials have stated that this late evening train will stick around at least through the end of 2015, but beyond that…is a huge mystery box. That’s why this late evening train needs to get as many riders as possible so that FDOT does not axe this run come December. If service is reduced, it will be that much harder to bring in more midday service, late night service that runs through 12-midnight, and weekend service.
Another plus for SunRail has been special events that have resulted in subsidized free service on the weekends. This has included the inaugural Orlando City Lions Soccer game and the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. These such events show just how strong weekend ridership could be if regular service were to be expanded. However, many officials still are skeptical of any such expansion, citing a nearly $30 million dollar price tag to add additional railcars and locomotives, as well as added labor, operational, and maintenance costs. The state of Florida recently announced that it had no funds available to fund any further service expansion on SunRail, although many of us transit supporters know…that is simply not the case. The state has money, but it’s been made blatantly clear that the number one transportation priority outside of regular roadway maintenance is the massive toll road expansion projects that the state claims will result in faster commutes for everyone while creating more jobs. What isn’t realized here though is that all of these toll roads, including managed toll lanes along our interstates (dubbed Lexus Lanes), will only create induced demand. Furthermore, the jobs being created through these roadway construction projects are largely temporary construction jobs, which will no doubt be reduced as these projects come to an end.
Other challenges for SunRail persist; including problems with the system’s ticketing machines, railway crossing incidents, and funding issues for its three planned extensions; one towards Poinciana to the south, DeLand to the north, and a third possible phase to Orlando International Airport. It is unclear at this time whether the ticketing machine problems will be resolved, the recent rash of car versus train incidents at railway crossings have led to the rail haters calling for more safety protocols for the system, and while area politicians are hopeful about obtaining federal funds for the planned extension to Poinciana, the two other extensions for SunRail aren’t as peachy when it comes to funding (the DeLand extension is facing low ridership projections, which may not allow it to get as much funding and support as originally hoped, and airport extension remains largely unfunded) . The two biggest questions remains though; what will become of SunRail as Ultimate I-4 continues? And what will become of it once the local municipalities and counties take over operation in 2021? As long as the Tea Party opposition towards passenger rail, and public transit as a whole for that matter, as well as the overall state of the economy being in limbo for at least a few more years, I don’t see things getting that much better for SunRail in the distant future. What I am hoping for though is that existing service will be sustainable for the long term so that one day, service can be expanded.