Metro Orlando is very grateful to have SunRail! Because here in Tampa Bay, it’s hard to build a better transportation network without a meaningful passenger rail system.
In collaboration with the SunRail Riders group – which advocates for better service on the SunRail Commuter Rail system in Orlando – I’m going to talk about SunRail and the challenges that Tampa Bay faces being without a passenger rail system. This post highlights the 7-day-a-week congestion along I-275, challenges with keeping the TECOline Streetcar Line running, and the ongoing battle between transit advocates and supporters, and the rail haters.
I invite you to read the full post at sunrailriders.com and tell us what you think. I want to take a few moments to thank the SunRail Riders for giving me this opportunity, and for everything that they do to help make SunRail even better! I hope to be able to write other pieces for the SunRail Riders in the future.
NOTE: Corresponding media in the post (except this photo) is not mine. Credit goes to their respective authors.
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.
It’s the 1st of February, and what is to be one of the largest infrastructure projects in Central Florida to date…is officially kicking off. That’s right, the construction phase of the Ultimate I-4 project is officially underway according to various news outlets throughout the state. The project will bring forth roughly six years of construction headaches as the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) completely rebuilds interchanges throughout the thoroughfare from Kirkman Rd to State Road 434. In addition to rebuilding key interchanges, lanes will be added to the highway, including two Tolled Express Lanes in each direction.
FDOT has the latest project information on the I-4 Ultimate web site. You will want to check into this site periodically for updates throughout the project’s duration. As of right now, you shouldn’t expect too much to change in your daily commute, but as February comes to a close, you will likely begin seeing some major lane shifts and closures, as well as tons of overnight and weekend work. If you have not yet planned out alternative routes in the event things get real bad on I-4, NOW is the time to do so.
Escape the construction mess! Use Transit!
For those of you who ARE ABLE TO USE SunRail, but haven’t started; NOW is the time to purchase your SunCard and make sure that there is enough balance. SunRail provides fast and easy connections with the LYNX bus system, which will allow you to not only save time and hassle versus driving on I-4, but also save on gas. Even though gas prices are at its lowest levels in years, many analysts are predicting that we’ve hit rock bottom, and that those prices are going to climb right back up in the next few months. Making these preparations now will save you tons of headaches down the road. If you’re not able to use SunRail or Lynx, that’s okay, there are other options such as carpooling, vanpooling, and even telecommuting (if your employer allows for it). If you aren’t sure where to start, in terms of planning out your commute, FDOT’s Re-Think service may be able to help!
Safety is top priority
If you choose to traverse I-4 during construction, you’ll want to keep a close eye out on lane shifts, closures, and reduced speed limits, as well as any ramp closures and associated detours. You can bet that the Florida Highway Patrol will have an increased presence during the construction phase as well, so don’t risk yourself getting a ticket, it’s not fun or cheap. Even worse, is getting into an accident because you didn’t pay attention to the roadway ahead of you.
So I will repeat, prepare NOW for the next six years of headaches along I-4 as the Ultimate reconstruction project rolls along. If you can use SunRail, then please do. If you can’t, then please spread the word to all those you know who can use SunRail. SunRail is currently at a pivotal moment by which we need to fight even harder for more evening, midday, and weekend service. Right now, SunRail does not run on the weekends, and the I-4 construction will continue around the clock, so if you hate having to drive I-4 on the weekends, then I hope that you will consider supporting the SunRail Riders in their mission to bring weekend rail service so that commuters have an alternative transit option seven days a week.
Hi everyone, HARTride 2012 here. I know I said that the 2014 Year-End Recap was going to be my final post for 2014. But I felt that I needed to convey something as soon as possible, while the “iron is still hot” so to speak. Anyways, we’re only hours away from kicking off the new year, and there’s going to be a lot at stake in 2015 when it comes to public transit in Florida. In particular, the SunRail Commuter Rail line in Orlando has reached a critical point in its young history. That critical point is the expansion of service that people throughout the Orlando metro area have been asking for.
The SunRail #NightTrain…why it’s so important.
Back in December, an announcement was made that a late-evening test train would begin service on the 22nd of that month, all in response to a petition that was signed by over 3,400 people, yeah…that’s a lot of signatures! So WAY TO GO! Yes, this is exactly what Orlando needs, more passenger rail service in the evening! This allows people to head out to see an Orlando Magic game, or have a nice evening out on the town with friends, all without having to worry about being stranded. Whatever the reason for staying late in downtown Orlando, now you have a way to get home that doesn’t have to involve your car.
Now, while this later evening train, which leaves DeBary at 9:05pm, arriving at Sand Lake Rd at 10:08pm, before departing northbound from Sand Lake at 10:20pm to arrive back at DeBary at 11:23pm, is great news, the momentum cannot stop here. We have to keep up the pressure on state and local leaders to not only make this trip permanent, but also usher in late night service that runs through 12-midnight, more frequency during the midday, and weekend services. The first and foremost way you can do just that, is by riding SunRail. If your destination lies within range of the SunRail corridor, you can easily leave your car at home, or park it at one of several suburban area park-n-ride lots, and use the train to reach a particular station of your choice. From there, you can easily connect to LYNX buses that will take you to most major destinations. From the DeBary station, you can connect to VoTran buses that will take you to nearby areas quickly and safely.
If you can’t ride SunRail regularly, that’s okay. Being that I’m in Tampa, I really can only use SunRail on occaision. However, I did get to use it during the fare-free week back in May of 2014, and I absolutely loved it! If I resided in Orlando, I would be using that train every chance I could…seriously…I would. But anyways, please, if you can’t ride SunRail regularly, tell your family members, friends, coworkers, and anyone else you know who could take advantage of SunRail, to use SunRail. The more regular riders we can get on board the train, especially the #NightTrain, the better! Because if the #NightTrain fails, it’s going to be so much harder to get service expanded…period.
Another way you can get involved is by attending meetings. On January 9, 2015, the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission – which oversees SunRail – will be meeting, and among the topics to be discussed are the #NightTrain, and the Ultimate I-4 project, the latter by which I will talk about in a moment. If you can attend this meeting, then please…do so! Every additional SunRail supporter that comes out to this meeting will make a huge difference in the path that the commission will take from that point onward. We have to show our elected officials that SunRail is a HUGE DEAL. I cannot stress this enough. If you want to attend the upcoming commission meeting, please take note of the information below:
Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission January Meeting
MetroPlan Orlando Office (Board Room)
315 East Robinson Street, Suite 355
Orlando, Florida 32801
Meeting runs from 10:00am until 12-noon
Information regarding special accommodations can be found through the MetroPlan Orlando website. Just select the meeting event on January 9 and a box will appear with the information needed.
Thank you to the wonderful folks at the SunRail Riders group for providing me with the venue information! This allowed me to obtain the time of the meeting from the MetroPlan Orlando website.
How SunRail impacts Tampa Bay’s transit situation.
Now, you might ask, what does SunRail have to do with transit in Tampa Bay? Well, SunRail has A LOT to do with transit in Tampa Bay. Because here in Tampa Bay, we too have been fighting to get better transit for years. And here in Tampa Bay, we have to deal with the anti-tax group No Tax For Tracks. NTFT was formed in 2010 and is run by Tea Party insiders who clearly do not want our transit systems to be expanded and improved. Instead, they want to see transit systems CUT, SLASHED, and eventually PRIVATIZED. In other words, they want the private sector to handle our bus and rail services and want NO PUBLIC DOLLARS to ever be used for transit again. NTFT will stop at nothing to make sure that West Central Florida has at least as many toll roads as the Orlando metro area has. And, NTFT’s leader even supports the building of a sprawling tolled beltway in eastern Hillsborough County that will only cause more sprawl, and that’s something that the Tampa Bay area does not need.
Now where does SunRail fit into this equation? Well, SunRail is often used as one of many targets by NTFT when it comes to “wasteful spending”, as they see it. If for instance, the #NightTrain isn’t successful, NTFT will no doubt have more reasons to argue that SunRail is nothing more than a boondoggle that has wasted taxpayer dollars and must be shut down immediately. Now do we really want these Tea Party insiders to keep whining like this? The answer is…NO, WE DON’T. We need to show these out-of-touch insiders that transit really can be a success story. And this is our chance to do just that by riding the #NightTrain and showing your support for SunRail at the upcoming Commuter Rail Commission meeting. If we can ensure that SunRail is a successful service, then that will send a message to Tampa Bay that a commuter rail line can thrive over there as well!
So here’s the bottom line on this matter, and something to keep in mind while going through your New Year’s plans. What happens in the Orlando area will have a substantial impact on other metro areas throughout Florida, including Tampa Bay and Miami. Miami’s Tri-Rail, which is considered to be SunRail’s big brother, has plans of its own for eventual expansion. If SunRail is a success, you can expect that service on TriRail will grow as well. And, as I mentioned, it could also pave the way for commuter rail lines in Tampa Bay, and even in Jacksonville. I believe Jacksonville also has passenger rail plans on the table.
The Ultimate I-4 Project…why pay more?
Okay, so I mentioned the Ultimate I-4 project a bit ago, so let me go into more detail. For those who aren’t aware, the Ultimate I-4 project is a radical reconstruction project that will revamp interchanges and add lanes to the busy and congested thoroughfare. A key reason why SunRail was built, is to provide an alternative to the congestion on I-4. The Ultimate I-4 project will begin this upcoming January February. Yes, that’s right, January February , 2015, we are only weeks away from groundbreaking. And…the project is expected to continue through 2021. That’s about six years of construction, which equates to six years of traffic headaches.
Even when the project is finished, will the congestion really end there? No, it won’t. And on top of that, the project introduces Tolled Express Lanes, which has really been gaining steam throughout the entire state, and the nation for that matter. My question to all those who support Tolled Express Lanes is this…do you really want to pay $5, $6, $7, $8, even $9 or $10, or even more…one-way…just to escape the morning gridlock? Think about it…the costs of maintaining your car, plus gas, plus tolls and parking.
Now even though the price of gas has gone down, your maintenance costs, as well as the overall costs of tolls, will likely not go down. And…it only takes one economic hiccup for gas prices to skyrocket again. Is that what you want to deal with for your daily commute? Why spend money each month on car maintenance, gas, tolls, and parking, when you can easily purchase a SunCard? A SunCard with a monthly travel plan costs far less than all of those expenses combined in a month’s time. You can also add funds to your SunCard just like you would a store gift card or a PrePaid Debit card.
For those of you who can easily take advantage of one of SunRail’s park-n-ride lots, that means less gas consumption, which in-turn means less money used on gas, and eventually vehicle maintenance. It also means money saved on tolls and parking, because SunRail’s park-n-ride lots are free of charge! Think about it? Calculate how much you spend monthly on gas, car maintenance, parking, and tolls. Then compare those costs to how much you would pay if you purchased a SunCard with a monthly travel plan. I think you will quickly see how much money you’ll save by using SunRail.
Kudos to the SunRail Riders!
With all of this said, I want to give a HUGE thank you to the SunRail Riders group. They have been leading the charge in advocating more service on the line, including the #NightTrain test. In fact, the SunRail Riders are the ones that organized the petition by which over 3,400 people signed. Without them, I really don’t know where SunRail would be right now. We all need to join the SunRail Riders in lending support for the train and making it clear that we need more service, including midday, late evening, and weekend services. We also need to make sure that we send a clear message to all those who want SunRail to fail, including the various Tea Party insiders. We need to keep telling them that SunRail will be a success story, not a huge flop like they want it to be. Expanding service on SunRail will do exactly that, and we need everyone to play their part in supporting SunRail, whether it is riding the rails, or at the very least…informing those you know to use the service, and attending meetings.
To close, it’s not just the SunRail Riders that are counting on your support for SunRail, I…HARTride 2012, am counting on your support too. Because together, we can all make a huge difference in the path that Metro Orlando takes when it comes to public transit.
Thank you, and have a safe and wonderful New Year!
In my 2nd installment of Transit Tourism, I’m going to share my experience using the SunRail Commuter Rail line in Orlando, FL. I was originally not planning to hop aboard SunRail until much later in the year (likely as part of a transit trip utilizing the HART bus system in Tampa, Megabus going from Tampa to Orlando, and using SunRail and the LYNX bus system while in the Orlando area), but decided last-minute to do so after visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom last week (Wednesday, May 14 to be exact).
The Orlando, FL region reached a pivotal transit milestone on May 1, 2014, the start of SunRail commuter rail services!
SunRail has been in the works since the early 2000s as a way to get traffic off of heavily congested Interstate 4, with construction beginning in 2007. The route (shown to the left) runs from DeBary to almost the Osceola/Orange County line at Sand Lake Rd, with a stop located at the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority (also known as LYNX)’s Central Station. Plans are in the works to extend the line to Poinciana to the south and DeLand to the north, connecting to Amtrak stations in DeLand and Kissimmee. All suburban stations (Maitland and northward, as well as Sand Lake Rd) have Park-N-Ride Lots.
While SunRail services only operate during weekdays, there are plans to expand operating hours should demand warrant it. Trains generally depart every 30 minutes during rush hour, with lesser service during the midday and late evening hours. The initial schedule has been posted on the SunRail website. Connections to LYNX bus routes are provided at all SunRail stations within Orange and Seminole Counties. At the DeBary station, Volusia Transit (VOTRAN) provides connecting bus services.
Like many passenger rail corridors, has seen its share of successes and struggles. Getting SunRail to become reality took a lot of collaboration between multiple entities, including local and state governments, the Florida Department of Transportation, and CSX Transportation. Additionally, there have been many political battles that delayed the start of construction a few times. In a future blog post, I will go through in further detail, some of the struggles that SunRail has had to deal with to get to the point that it is at now.
After May 16, revenue service on SunRail will begin. One-way and Round-trip tickets are available, as well as a reloadable “SunCard” that is valid for 7-days, 30-days, and 1-year respectively. All tickets operate on a “tap and go” smartcard system that is similar to Ventra in Chicago.
So the big question remains, will SunRail be a hit with commuters? Or will it fizzle into “Boondoggle” territory?
I know that I’ve been lagging behind on posting as of late. I’ve been trying to get into a regular schedule, but November and December have been much busier than I thought. Holiday event planning is definitely no easy task, and I’ve been having to help my family out with several different events that took place during the past couple months. Add to that; my computer problems during August and September, and my hiatus from earlier in the year. I know that in the end, I probably let down some of my viewers, and I sincerely apologize for that. I hope that with the new year, I can finally devote some time to make some major updates.
For those of you who celebrate Christmas, I would like to wish you, and your family a very Merry Christmas! I certainly hope that you are able to enjoy this wonderful day, no matter where you are located!
With all this said, I would like to take some time to reflect back on some of the major transit-related developments that occurred in 2012. I have grouped everything by month, and color coded each event as they pertain to the particular focus region that I cover in my blog.
BLUE: Tampa Bay (HART, PSTA, MCAT, SCAT, PCPT, Hernando THEbus, Citrus County Transportation)
I sincerely apologize for the lack of activity here. Things have been very crazy in recent months and have not had the chance to really plan out my next few postings. In fact, much of what I had planned quickly had to be scrapped due to the political climate that we are now experiencing. Nonetheless, I have promised everyone, especially our Twitter and Facebook followers that I would post again soon. So here I go! 🙂
Now, what to post about today? Why not talk about SunRail, the planned commuter rail system in Orlando. SunRail has been anything but a smooth ride during its course of planning. First we saw the bitter liability showdown between CSX and the state of Florida, not to mention all of the financial problems and political fights that were brought along with it. But now we have a new governor, Rick Scott, who so far, has been very anti-transit. It certainly seemed at first that SunRail was doomed, but with pressure mounting from both sides of the aisle, the verdict remains very foggy, if at best.
Click here to view a recent article that was put out by WFTV in Orlando.
Now, here is my view on SunRail. Despite its costs and possible risks to us taxpayers, SunRail will bring an alternative method of transportation to many residents of the Orlando area. Can you imagine less congestion on I-4 and the various expressways due to SunRail? I sure can. Just like High Speed Rail, which Governor Scott derailed earlier this year, we have come so far to bring the SunRail project to reality. For the Governor to kill the project would prove to be far worse than any of the risk that the state would take on by moving forward with the project.
Governor Scott has until July to decide what he wants to do, but my hope is that he will approve the project so that Orlando has a chance to create meaningful public transit, and possibly inspire other metro areas, like Tampa, to do the same someday.
I will be reporting back when Governor Scott has made his decision. Hopefully, he will have made the right choice for Orlando’s future.
Best Regards, HARTride 2012 Tampa Bay Transit Administrator
So with SunRail gone, and TriRail still in limbo, I wonder if Tampa’s LRT could be next to be hit with a series of hurdles. Of course, Tampa’s plan is nowhere near the circumstance of either SunRail or TriRail, which are totally different modes of rail compared to Tampa’s LRT, but the LRT does have some uncertainty in the way of whether voters will vote for it in 2010. We will see where this goes from here…
If you haven’t heard all the controversy surrounding Orlando’s commuter rail system, SunRail, then you’re in for some good news and some very (devastating) bad news.
First, an overview. Planning for SunRail started many years ago, but previous attempts to get it through the Florida congress have proved to be unsuccessful. One reason being is that the commuter trains will run along the same corridors as CSX freight trains. This brings up a major liability issue between CSX and the state, which to this day, has not been resolved.
Next, the good news, in this Bay News 9 article, SunRail just managed to pass a senate committee 4-3, which would bring the plan closer to reality. Great news right?!
Wrong, here’s the (devastating) bad news. Florida’s massive budget crisis, coupled with the global recession, is threatening to derail SunRail indefinitely. If state congress has its way and ends up cutting out a huge chunk from a transportation trust fund, then the implications could be severe, possibly delaying SunRail for as much as 5 to 10 years!
Now why do I mention SunRail if it has nothing to do with Tampa Bay? Well, in reality, this pivotal moment will likely affect every single rail project and entity that is either currently in operation or is being planned. Such an example is Miami’s Tri-Rail system. It brings many passengers in southeast Florida to their destinations each day, but the state budget is threatening to pull that system off ts tracks as well. With this transportation trust fund a lot smaller and other sources of revenue cut off as well, Tri-Rail can’t possibly earn the amount of funding it needs to continue operating. Additionally, believe it or not, this cut in the trust fund could also mean a possible delay for Tampa’s light rail system, if such funds are being sought out, not to mention many roadway projects that will have to be shelved.
In other news…
It looks like that the high speed rail dreams for Florida aren’t totally lost….again. As the plans from the $8 billion dollars in stimulus funds set out for HSR become more detailed, it looks like that the first batch of grants will be going out later this year. Will Florida be on the list? We’re not sure yet. But for now, it seems that those bullet trains are one step closer to running here in our sunny state.