Executives Put Big Ambitions on Paper for Central Florida Passenger Rail Growth – Orlando Sentinel

What do Central Florida voters and federal bureaucrats have in common?

The two are invited to join a complex and possibly historic plan to expand rail transportation in central Florida.

The details are in a “white paper” written by the Florida Department of Transportation and local stakeholders backing proposals to expand commuter rail at Orlando airport, bring both commuter rail commuter and high-speed rail into the area’s convention and tourism district and push high-speed rail service. in Tampa.

The white paper’s thrust: the rail opportunity would benefit the region’s workforce and tourism economy, private investment would come from Brightline Trains and Universal Studios, and how – at least on paper – Central Florida is not too demanding in its requests for federal support. .

The white paper offers three options on how to turn the transportation dream into reality. The first two call for dividing the rail expansion into separate pieces and stages. The third option, and the most popular, calls for doing everything as a roughly $6 billion project.

“If we want to think big, we might as well think about doing everything,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. “Although this is a big project, there are still distinct pieces.”

Federal funding accounts for half of Central Florida’s grand transportation ambitions on paper. The other half is on the November ballots for Orange County voters, who will be asked if they want to raise the sales tax one penny to pay for a transportation review.

The architect and leading voice of the proposed increase is Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, the former county sheriff who won re-election in August for his second term as mayor.

Demings said he devoted much of his political standing as well as hundreds of community meetings to advocating for massive improvements to Central Florida’s transportation system, which lags behind others. communities, in particular for public transport by bus and train.

Better public transit can reduce growing congestion on the roads and provide affordable, convenient and efficient travel for the average person and for the working class on which the region’s tourism and service industry relies, Demings said.

“I feel like my re-election was about whether people trusted me, did people trust what I was saying and to some extent the sales tax initiative was on the ballot as well. voting indirectly with my re-election because I continue to not back down from the basic premise that this is the best solution for our community to solve their transportation problems,” Demings said.

“So due to the fact that the locals re-elected me by a landslide, in my humble opinion, it was the assertion that the majority of voters supported my vision for Orange County,” Demings said.

While federal support will make vast expansion of public transit possible, raising the sales tax by a penny would be vital for the operation and maintenance of the bus and rail systems that meet in the county. of Orange as a hub for adjacent cities and counties.

The cost of operating the current SunRail service, which the Florida Department of Transportation has continued to cover since 2014, is more than $50 million per year.

“The long-term operating cost without the penny sales tax is probably tough,” Dyer said.

Demings said the most immediate step with passing a penny sales tax increase would be to double the size of the Lynx bus system in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. within one to five years. The task of expanding passenger rail transport would likely unfold over a period of eight to ten years, he said.

A cornerstone of the rail service expansion vision is already visible in high profile and on the verge of commissioning.

This month, Orlando International Airport will open its long-awaited $3 billion Terminal C. It adjoins a station built five years ago for the eventual arrival of several forms of railroading, including Brightline Trains, which will begin service from South Florida to the station next year.

What comes next, according to Central Florida’s passenger rail vision, would connect the railroad between Orlando International Airport and SunRail’s 61 miles of commuter corridor that runs north to south through the Orlando area from DeLand to Poinciana.

Then there would be a rail line extending beyond the SunRail corridor to the International Drive area and near Walt Disney World for use by SunRail and Brightline.

Finally, a rail corridor would be built along Interstate 4 from near Disney to Tampa for Brightline.

SunRail would run potentially every 15 minutes to serve the airport and tourist and convention areas, while Brightline said it would run trains back and forth every hour between Miami and Orlando and eventually Tampa.

This whole vision has been brought together under the name Sunshine Corridor.

With U.S. Representatives Stephanie Murphy and Val Demings leaving their seats at the end of the year, Congressman Darren Soto of Kissmmee is increasingly the go-to person in Washington to advance Central Florida’s quest for federal funds. .

“We’re pretty confident that we’re going to get about half of that $6 billion project,” Soto said.

The widely anticipated, though undetermined, funding formula would see the federal government cover 50%, with the state paying 25% and local partners, including Brightline and Universal, on the hook for 25%.

“It will be in the form of multiple grants through the Infrastructure Act,” Soto said of the federal contribution. “There are 10 years of funding. I don’t expect there to be one big announcement – like “here’s $3 billion”.

Soto said the Sunshine Corridor is in a strong position because of the cooperation among Central Florida stakeholders and the merits of the project. “It’s huge traffic for commuters and for tourists,” he said.

Soto and other leaders’ confidence in federal support stems in part from the fact that the Sunshine Corridor won a $15.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in June. The Consolidated Rail and Infrastructure and Safety Improvements, or CRISI, grant will come with a $15.8 million contribution from Brightline.

“The grant will support preliminary engineering activities and environmental approvals,” Brightline said of the CRISI money. This means significant design work for the railroad in the middle of I-4 and other transportation corridors.

Dyer said the CRISI award was a key signal from Washington that funding would come.

“Once you get into that funding queue, chances are that unless you get it wrong, you’ll continue to be in that queue and go through the stages,” Dyer said.

Two challenges await you. One stems from the unexpected death last month of Jim Harrison, executive director of Lynx. During a long career in Orange County, he was a planner, lawyer and engineer, engaging a wide variety of stakeholders, from union leaders to local politicians.

recent news

As it happens

Be the first to know with email alerts on the latest important news from the Orlando Sentinel Newsroom.

Harrison previously held a central role in planning for local government takeover of SunRail from the state Department of Transportation. At Lynx, while managing a system of over 300 buses, he also reshaped and positioned this agency to be the future SunRail home.

Demings, current chairman of Lynx, said the hiring of a new chief executive would be on hold until after the November vote on the proposed sales tax increase, which could significantly redefine the size and capabilities of the bus agency.

“With the Sunshine Corridor, there’s a lot of talk about merging operations between SunRail and Lynx,” Demings said. “In order to hire the right person, that person needs to understand what the odds are of this becoming a reality.”

The other challenge is SunRail’s long-delayed and complex transfer of control and funding from the State Department of Transportation to Orange, Osceola, Seminole, and Volusia counties and the city of Orlando, a transition now scheduled for 2024. .

Seminole County Commissioner and SunRail commissioner Bob Dallari expressed concern that the focus on the Sunshine Corridor has overshadowed the urgent needs and thorny details of completing the transition.

“There are still a lot of things pending with the DOT and we are working on it,” Dallari said. “There’s a lot of things about that that we haven’t had a conversation about.”

[email protected]

About Kevin Strickland

Check Also

China is testing a floating car that uses magnets to hover at 143mph

If you’ve ever imagined a future filled with flying cars, your dream might be getting …