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SunRail: Will the $1.2 billion commuter train pay off?

By   /   September 24, 2013  /   2 Comments

By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

courtesy of SunRail

SUNRAIL: Phase one of the publically financed commuter train is set to open next spring. Will it pay off?

TALLAHASSEE — After years of planning, a $1.2 billion taxpayer commitment and the promise of thousands of jobs, Orlando area residents finally caught a glimpse of the SunRail commuter train.

According to one glowing media report, elected officials joined a “thrilled” crowd of 500 onlookers in Winter Park on Saturday for the unveiling of the 62-mile publicly financed railway project.

“I want to see if it’s something we can use frequently,” one prospective rider told the Orlando Sentinel. A full round-trip ticket is only $5.

That may sound like a good deal, but according to SunRail’s own figures the light rail train costs a lot more.

The total construction cost reportedly stands at $615 million. The federal government is paying 50 percent, while the state and five Central Florida local governments are splitting the remaining half.

The initial $432 million cost slated for acquiring existing railway tracks has already jumped to $650 million.

The state will also fund all operating and maintenance costs for seven years, after which area local governments will pick up the tab.

In April, the Florida Department of Transportation announced a $195 million contract with Bombardier Transportation, a Canadian firm, for operating and maintenance expenses.

But the likelihood of recouping these costs is nil, according to Randal O’Toole of the libertarian Cato Institute.

In a 2010 policy report, O’Toole concluded, “no transit line in the country comes close to covering its operating costs, much less its total costs.”

If true, that would leave taxpayers on the hook even though most Floridians will rarely or may never ride the rail.

The one-to-three car trains hold up to 150 passengers per car. Using SunRail’s own projections, ridership will peak in 2030 with 7,400 daily trips, or 3,700 round trips, in an area of over 3.3 million residents.

But that’s missing the point, advocates say. Accessible public transportation and the potential for jobs and economic growth are worth the broad taxpayer support.

Before cutting a ceremonial ribbon and officially opening the train doors Saturday, Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley referred to the SunRail as the “backbone of Florida.”

Phase one, or the first 32-miles of the track, is scheduled to begin operation May 2014. The remaining stretch will be completed in 2016.

In case you missed Saturday’s event, here’s your own SunRail sneak-peek. (The video was produced by Ride SunRail prior to the public unveiling).


Correction: The author of the Cato study was incorrectly cited as Richard O’Toole, rather than Randal O’Toole.

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William Patrick is Watchdog.org’s Florida reporter. His work has been featured by Fox News, the Drudge Report, and Townhall.com, as well as other national news and opinion websites. He’s also been cited and reposted by numerous state news organizations, including Florida Trend, Sunshine State News and the Miami Herald, and is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Florida Press Association. William’s work has impacted discussions on education, privacy, criminal justice reform, and government and corporate accountability. Prior to joining Watchdog, William worked for the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. There, he launched a legislative news website covering state economic issues. After leaving New York City in 2010, William worked for the Florida Attorney General’s Office where he assisted state attorneys general in prosecuting Medicaid Fraud. William graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College, City University of New York. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife and three young children.

  • James Hartwell

    what happened to the constitutal ammendent against railroad funding passed voters a few years ago

  • vey9

    Explain the payoff of the I-4 expansion, please.