Dan Tracy and Aaron Deslatte / Orlando Sentinel / July 1, 2011
Florida leaders this morning gave the go-ahead to SunRail, the long-delayed Central Florida commuter train project.
Ananth Prasad, secretary of the state Department of Transportation, made the official announcement during a Tallahassee news conference heavily attended by public-relations staffers working for local governments and business groups backing the project.
The $1.2 billion train was put on hold in January by Gov. Rick Scott, who has made it clear that he is no fan of the project.
SunRail is a project that the Department, previous governors, legislatures, local elected officials, and tens of thousands of Floridians have spent years working on to move forward,” said Prasad, who toured the region this week and said local government partners “supported a commuter rail system and the local governments will participate in any cost overruns.”
Prasad said the six-month delay in the project didn’t unearth any new facts but was needed for the governor’s “due diligence,” He said the state was committed to making it work with minimum cost overruns.
“We’re going to deliver this project with the least amount of cost overruns,” Prasad said. “This project is going to be sort of a judgment day project. If we cannot make SunRail successful, probably there will be no more commuter trains in Florida. … we have to make this train, SunRail, successful.”
The decision sets the stage for SunRail to begin operations as early as May 2014, running between DeBary in Volusia County, downtown Orlando and the south edge of Orange County. Within another couple of years it supposed to go to DeLand in Volusia and Poinciana inOsceola County.
The approval ends the region’s 30-year quest to devise a transportation alternative to cars and buses. Previous attempts ranging from magnetically levitated trains to light rail options have failed.
While Scott closely held his decision, he did leave hints that he would give the go-ahead, most prominently by setting aside more than $269 million for SunRail in the state budget that takes effect today.
That money largely is slated for CSX, the Jacksonville-based railroad company that owns the tracks the state would buy for the commuter train.
The state Department of Transportation is in charge of getting SunRail on the move and will oversee operations for the first seven years. After that, the local governments would take control.
An estimated 4,200 construction jobs is supposed to be created by the train, along with an untold amount of development planned around the 17 stops on the 61-mile system. One of the biggest expansion plans revolves around the Florida Hospital campus just north of downtownOrlando.
More than $70 million in taxpayer dollars has already been spent gearing up for the project, first proposed in 2005 by former Gov.Jeb Bush.
Nonetheless, Scott’s decision to put the project on hold in January sent shockwaves through local business and political circles and prompted months of behind-the-scenes lobbying and negotiations to get the train started again.
“This was a total regional effort to convey support for the project,” said House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican who pushed the project’s insurance-liability provisions through his chamber twice and said he as “really proud of the governor.”
But critics of Scott’s decision last February to scuttle another $2.7 billion high-speed rail project that was almost exclusively financed by the federal government blasted Scott for what they called an obvious contradiction.
“Governor Scott used all the right arguments to green light the wrong rail project,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who unsuccessfully sued Scott after he killed the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail project.
“His support had nothing to do with good policy, good logic, or the good of Floridians. But it had everything to do with hypocrisy and allegiance to his Republican brethren.”
Cannon said there was a practical difference between the two trains. “It’s a different project in the degree of planning and the return for SunRail, versus the unpredictability of high-speed rail,” he said.