Tuesday, May 06, 2014
Orlando's new commuter rail service has been open for less than a week — and officials have already added an extra departure to the schedule. But the free rides are about to come to end.
Monday, May 05, 2014
How do you convince Floridians who are used to driving to give give it up in favor of mass transit? Experts say it's no small feat — but that with the right messaging and good service, it can be done. And the ace in the hole will come, they say, when the line connects to the airport.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
By Brendan Byrne : WMFE
After over two decades and $1 billion, Florida's newest commuter rail system is launching this week. And to lure a population unused to transit, SunRail is offering two weeks of free rides — and some teachable moments.
Friday, August 16, 2013
Central Florida got its first peek at new SunRail passenger cars this week.
Monday, May 13, 2013
"We can’t depend on the old ways of doing things," says Harry Barley, the executive director of Central Florida’s regional transportation planning agency Metroplan Orlando.
"The old ways have typically been simply building wider roads and newer roads. We’ve got to look for more efficient ways of moving people." Florida may be known for aborting a high-speed rail project in 2011, but come 2014 and beyond, it may be a state of rail investment.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Orlando's transportation planning agency says the city could see a bike sharing system up and running by next spring, in time for Central Florida's SunRail commuter train, a program we reported on last fall. On Wednesday Metroplan Orlando's bike share working group got a look at bikes produced by one of the companies angling for a toe hold in Central Florida.
Friday, March 08, 2013
"We love Orlando, we love Mickey Mouse, we love Walt Disney, Universal, the Church Street Facilities, that great mall -- Millenia Mall, but dadgum that I-4, that's a headache," Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad told journalists in Orlando this week.
"We're going to fix that headache."
The Florida DOT is moving ahead with plans for the I-4 Ultimate project- a $2.1 billion dollar fix for I-4. The state's prescription includes adding toll lanes to a 21-mile stretch of the interstate running through the heart of Orlando. The department aims to begin construction in 2015 and complete it by 202o.
Prasad said four so-called "managed lanes" would be added to the interstate, leaving six lanes toll free. Tolls would be higher during heavy congestion periods and lower when traffic is light.
“We use tolls to only keep a certain number of people in the managed lanes so we can keep them going at 50 miles an hour," he said. "Say if I-4's ‘general purpose’ lanes – the toll-free lanes – are congested and you only charge a quarter, everybody’s going to be on it, and now you got another two lanes of gridlock. So what you do is you use tolls as a way to manage capacity coming in to the express lane.”
Prasad conceded there is a downside to building the extra lanes.
"There's going to be inconvenience- you're talking about $2 billion worth of work in a very constrained corridor- albeit a long corridor- getting done over five years. It's a lot of work."
However, Prasad said a similar $1.3 billion expansion project is successfully underway on South Florida's I-595. He said travel times along that stretch of road-- roughly 10 miles -- have only increased by an average of five minutes because of construction.
The state is putting up about half the $2.1 billion dollar cost of the I-4 Ultimate project and courting private investment to foot the remainder of the bill. Under a public-private partnership agreement with the state, private firms would also maintain and operate the toll lanes for a fixed length of time.
Prasad said the public private partnership allows Florida to take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs.
"What the state gets is delivering a project 20 years in advance," he said.
"If we were to do this project on a regular pay-go mechanism, we would be building it for the next 20 or 25 years and chasing congestion like we always do."
Gregg Logan, a managing director at the real estate advisory firm RCLCO's Orlando office, says the I-4 upgrade will help the local economy.
"You don’t want businesses that are here already and thinking about expanding saying, 'Gee, do I want to stay here and deal with this gridlock'- or companies that might be thinking about coming and bringing jobs. We want them to be looking at [Orlando] as a good place to invest because we have our act together."
And he says Florida has to look for new ways to fund infrastructure - with a combination of local government funding, private investment and user fees- because federal government dollars are limited.
"Like it or not that seems to be a collective decision we’ve made as a society for that’s how we’re going to fund infrastructure," says Logan, who adds he's worried the US is falling behind other countries in transportation infrastructure.
"When you look around the world right now and you look at where big rail projects and transit projects are being done, you find that’s in China Brazil, the Middle East," says Logan.
"We’ve sort of forgotten that part of what has made us great and enabled us to have the growing economy we have is that we made these investments in infrastructure. Now we’ve taken that for granted."
The Florida DOT is promoting I-4's managed toll lanes as one part of a multi-modal transport system that could also include bus rapid transit to complement Central Florida's SunRail commuter train. SunRail is slated to begin service in 2014, while private rail companies are also talking about an Orlando to Miami service and a maglev rail linking Orlando International Airport with the Orange County Convention Center.
Eric Dumbaugh, the director of Florida Atlantic University's School of Urban and Regional Planning, supports the addition of managed lanes to I-4. The challenge for Florida, he says, is to develop viable alternatives to driving.
"Our transit system is inadequate in all of our metropolitan areas: it doesn’t take us where we need to go, our development doesn’t link up to it as well as it should, so we’re trapped in our cars."
But Dumbaugh says he's optimistic about Florida's ability to develop a truly comprehensive transportation system, because a new generation is now demanding alternatives to the car.
"You survey millennials- they don’t want to drive," says Dumbaugh, who highlights the efforts of a group of Florida Atlantic University students to set up a transit themed installation in Miami this weekend.
Friday, February 22, 2013
Another infusion of federal cash is keeping central Florida's SunRail project on track to open in 2014.
Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, speaking on behalf of transportation secretary Ray LaHood, paid a visit to a Florida Hospital in Orlando, where one of the stops for the 61 mile long SunRail line is being built. Rogoff was joined by local leaders, state department of transportation officials and Florida lawmakers including U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown.
Rogoff announced the federal government would make $87.3 million available in funding for SunRail, bringing the FTA's investment to date in the Central Florida commuter rail line to $148 million. The Federal government has agreed to pay $178.6 million overall in New Start funds towards construction of the 32-mile long first phase of the line, about half the capital cost.
"We make incremental payments based on the progress of the project," Rogoff said. "They're making great progress, they're ready to spend that money, they're ready to keep these people on the job."
Rogoff highlighted the rail line as a jobs engine, which has already employed 800 people to work in construction.
"But what we're really excited about is all the additional jobs that are coming in from the economic development along the line," he added.
The Florida hospital station is at the heart of a 176 acre "health village" where the hospital is developing medical research offices, apartments and shops.
SunRail officials say there are more than two dozen retail, office, government and residential development projects associated with stations along the rail line, representing $1.6 billion in investment.
Rogoff also talked about the need for additional spending on roads and other infrastructure in Florida-- particularly to fix up hundreds of bridges, highlighting president Obama's call for a $50 Billion infrastructure plan. "If that $50 billion dollars goes through, you're going to see more investment around here, not just on this type of rail project but on highway and sea port projects that will keep the economy of Florida going."
Asked whether sunshine state might see federal funds in the future for high speed rail, Rogoff said "that is going to depend a lot I believe on the leadership of Florida."
Florida's Governor Rick Scott famously turned down federal money for a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa in 2011.
Meanwhile, SunRail officials say the first phase of the commuter rail line, a 32 mile long stretch from DeBary to Sand Lake Road, will open in 2014.
Friday, September 21, 2012
(Orlando, Fla. -- WMFE) The train could bring in the bikes. The regional transportation planning agency MetroPlan Orlando is considering starting a bike share program to roll out alongside the SunRail train service under construction. The commuter train line is seen as a catalyst for cycling, with the potential to locate bike share kiosks around the stations along the 61 mile rail line. Other locations in consideration for bike share programs include the University of Central Florida and International Drive in Orlando.
Some cities like Orlando and Winter Park, are already researching bike sharing. But Mighk (pronounced Mike) Wilson, who leads the MetroPlan bike share working group, says it makes more sense to have a region wide system.
“You don’t want to have the user sign up for a program, let’s say in the city of Orlando, and then go sign up for another program maybe in Altamonte, and then have all that redundancy,” he says.
"Instead they should be able to hop on a bike anywhere in the Central Florida area, all under the same membership and fee structure."
The working group held its first meeting Wednesday.
Wilson says he doesn't know if bike share will be up and running in Central Florida by the time SunRail starts in 2014. "What we haven't really determined yet is, are we going to move forward with a bike share program," he says. "We still need to answer a number of questions before we make that commitment." Wilson says one of the first steps will be to put out a Request For Information from bike share companies.
Orlando already put out its own RFI, and three companies responded: Wisconsin based B-Cycle; Deco Bike, which has programs in South Florida and New York; and the Southern California based Bike Nation.
Winter Park Sustainability coordinator Tim Maslow says setting up a region-wide bike share program could take longer than it would for an individual city- but he's willing to wait.
"I think the investment in time will pay off in the end," he says. "Maybe we could roll it out in three to six months, but I think it would be worse if we tried to expedite it on our own and then people who were traveling to and from Winter Park, Orlando and surrounding areas were using different systems and they had to get different memberships."
The other benefit of setting up a bigger system is a bigger funding pool. "If it was just city-wide, we would have to foot the bill not only just for bicycles and the stations, which could be a pretty hefty investment, but the city would have to assume the risk and liability and operation of that system," Maslow says. "I'm not sure we have the resources or the staff time."
Maslow says he's still hopeful bike sharing can roll out at the same time as SunRail. He says Winter Park is also making plans to accommodate private bike owners, and the city is in talks with the architects designing the new train station about a potential covered bike storage facility near the station.
A hundred miles west of Orlando, in St. Petersburg, plans are also underway for bike sharing. MyBike founder Andrew Blikken aims to use a system developed by the New York based company SoBi., which does away with the need for kiosks. The bikes include an on-board computer and can be locked up anywhere: riders can use their smartphones to locate a bike, unlock it and pay for its use.
MyBike was slated to launch in July with 500 bicycles, but Blikken says he's still trying to raise money for the program.
"There is not a bank on the planet that considers bikes collateral," he says.
"So that means debt financing is basically not possible for something like this. However, equity financing is. We have found a number of people who are very interested in putting down smaller amounts. We have a quarter million dollars towards our million dollar goal in our subscription agreement so far."
Blikken says he's looking for a major sponsor to get myBike off the ground. He says once he gets the capital it will be six months at least before his program will be operational.
Meanwhile in Orlando, another start up company is trying to generate interest in a bike share program using the same technology.
SunCycles founder Peter Martinez says he's in talks with SoBi, and he's also looking for people to invest in his company.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
By Mark Simpson
Planners designing around Central Florida’s SunRail future commuter line are working to bring walkable communities around rail stops, said Shaun Donovan, secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
They are making sure zoning changes around the stations will be able to increase nearby construction, which creates jobs, but also brings housing and jobs within a walkable distance, he said in an interview with WMFE just before the Florida Housing Coalition’s annual conference.
“Frankly, families are getting more and more fed up,” Donovan said. “I don’t want to spent two hours commuting...the average family now spends fifty cents of every dollar they earn just on housing and transportation...this can lower the cost of jobs.”
SunRail is expected to cost $1.2 billion to construct. It will begin operations in 2014.
Friday, August 10, 2012
The chair of the House Transportation Committee finds himself in a scrappy fight for re-election, but he's standing his ground and turning to mobility metaphors to express his confidence: "I think I have some life left on the odometer," he said, touting the benefits of his seniority in the house. Meanwhile, his opponent, Sandy Adams, is pointedly using his Washington experience against him.
Mica's U.S. Congressional District 7 used to stretch from his home in Winter Park, metro Orlando to Ponte Vedra, a seaside town 130 miles north, not far from Jacksonville. Redistricting shifted the boundaries closer to Orlando, and District 7 now centers on Seminole County, just north of Orlando's exurbs. Neighboring District 24 -- currently represented by Sandy Adams -- moved South, leaving Adams to scrap with Mica in the Republican primary.
As the influential chair of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, Mica has been in Congress nearly 20 years, long enough for people to know who he is. Under siege from his opponent Sandy Adams, he’s flying his conservative colors and highlighting his record as a whistle blower on wasteful spending.
“You get to election year, and people want to know what you’ve done, and what you stand for, and I think I’ve got a very strong record of cutting waste, government bureaucracy and also of providing leadership,” says Mica.
But Adams says he's exactly the kind of insider politician voters don't want.
Adams also criticized Mica over a highway tolling provision in the recently passed highway funding bill.
"It was his bill, he put the tolls on I-4 after telling people he would not," says Adams. "That’s a career politician.
"That's total political malarkey," says Mica. He says the bill preserves free lanes and stipulates if new toll lanes are built, “then you have to use the money for the construction or to reduce indebtedness, which would reduce or eliminate the tolls."
And Mica says he's no cheerleader for the Obama administration.
"It's totally absurd, taken out of context," says Mica. "I am the best cheerleader in Congress for transportation and getting people working."
"I was able to defeat Harry Reid and get a transportation bill done that the Democrats couldn't do, an FAA bill that cut Harry Reid's $3,720 airline ticket subsidies, so I'm not the best friend of either Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama."
After nearly a decade in Tallahassee as a Florida state representative, Adams is no political newcomer, but she’s staking her claim as a cost cutting outsider.
“I am not a career politician," says Adams. " I am, and remain, a citizen legislator.”
She says the choice is clear for voters on August 14th in the Republican primary. "They have a choice between a 20-year career Washington politician, or someone that they sent less than two years ago to fix the mess he helped create."
Adams defeated a Democrat in 2010, but this time she’s up against a formidable Republican. "I'm sort of the rock of Gibraltar," says Mica, who says District 7 needs a representative with his staying power and leadership.
And in the highly competitive 435 member U.S. Congress, Mica says his seniority is a good thing. "It will easily be another decade-and-a-half before another full committee chair comes from Central Florida, just because of seniority."
Mica's clout has allowed him to out-raise his opponent nearly two to one. At the end of July, his campaign had nearly a million dollars cash in hand while Adams had half that.
After a Rotary lunch meeting in Orlando Thursday where both Mica and Adams spoke, Mica was quick to quash any suggestion he'd paid for a high profile endorsement from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. "Oh absolutely not. You don't know what a stingy bastard I am. I wouldn't pay anybody for an endorsement."
Meanwhile Adams' campaign has picked up steam in recent days, with an online fundraising site raking in nearly $30,000 in just over 24 hours.
"We're doing just fine," says Adams.
There's also a Democratic primary in District 7, with new-deal Democrat Nicholas Ruiz up against blue-dog Jason Kendall for a chance to take on the winner of the Mica-Adams contest.
Jason Kendall says if he makes it through his primary, there are enough moderates to give him votes in November.
"Sandy’s something of an extremist," says Kendall. " Getting endorsed by Allan West or Sarah Palin might work in some places but I know a lot of people were really turned off by that endorsement.”
Both Republican candidates have a strong base of supporters, but there are some who still haven't made up their minds, like Steve Grier, who was at a recent Mitt Romney campaign event in Orlando. Grier said he wants to learn more about Adams and Mica.
"I like a lot of things about John Mica," he said. "I know that he was for SunRail, which I’m not real crazy about that aspect. But that remains to be seen. Honestly, I’ve had my eyes more on the presidential aspect of the race.”
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Developers are building apartments along Florida’s new commuter rail line -- but if SunRail isn't reliable, both the idea of transit-oriented development -- not to mention SunRail -- could flop.
The SunRail tracks run straight through Florida Hospital’s campus on North Orange Ave. When the commuter train starts in 2014 it will be an important part of the hospital’s plans for a health village, which will include a mix of apartments, shops and businesses clustered around the yet-to-be built rail station.
Developer Craig Ustler says the project will transform the surrounding neighborhood.
“It would look like a lot of people walking, a pedestrian friendly environment, and maybe an evolution to a place where the car doesn’t win all the time.”
Ustler is counting on residents for a 250 apartment, $38 million complex he’s building a few blocks from the hospital.
The idea behind transit-oriented development (TOD) is to create pedestrian- friendly environments with access to transportation alternatives to the car. Local officials, like Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, are excited about its potential.
“Transit-oriented development is popping up all around these stations, giving us new places to work, live and play," said Dyer when SunRail got the final go-ahead a year ago.
"New companies moving in, new jobs being created. People saving money because they don’t have to use their car. People saving time because they’re not stuck on I-4.”
With ten thousand hospital employees and about three thousand students at the College of Health Sciences, all of them potential rail passengers, shoppers or tenants, Florida Hospital is ripe for TOD.
To make it work, though, the rail has to run often and on time. And right now SunRail won’t run on weekends.
Gregg Logan, managing director of the Orlando real estate advisory services firm RCLCO, says that could be a problem.
“If it’s not convenient, then people won’t use it and that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘see, we shouldn’t have funded it because people aren’t using it,'" says Logan.
"Well, people will use it if it’s convenient.”
SunRail says it will extend the service if there’s demand.
TOD is still untested in Central Florida, and that’s made it challenging for developers to get financing for big projects around rail. Compared to cities with well-established mass transit system like New York, Central Florida’s urban environment is relatively young, with most of the big growth springing up in the last 50 years. But Gregg Logan says that could be an advantage.
“I guess the good news is we can go to some of these other places and look at what worked," he says, "and borrow some of their best ideas.”
Logan says Central Florida should take inspiration from Portland’s street car and the Washington DC Metro, where TOD has driven up the value of land around rail stations. While Florida Hospital has big plans for development, some of the other stops along the rail line aren’t as far advanced.
One landowner trying to attract business for a potential development is Tupperware. Spokesperson Thomas Roehlk says the company has 100 acres for mixed use set aside at its headquarters near the Osceola Parkway station.
“We haven’t had the interest yet from businesses, partially as a consequence of the fact that we are in phase two, so we’re four years out from having a station, and secondly just because of the slow uptick to the economy," He says.
However, Roehlk believes Tupperware’s plan will succeed in the long run because of the location’s proximity to another major transport hub -- Orlando International Airport.
Meanwhile, developer Craig Ustler says once the train starts running past his building at Florida Hospital, Orlando residents will begin to see the potential for a well-planned urban environment.
“I think the vast majority of people have woken up to the fact that living 30 miles away from where they work, and driving, and the price of gas and all that is probably not the most efficient thing in the world," says Ustler.
"We still need some time to work through exactly how to fix that and how to give people the tools to make a move.”
Ustler's apartment complex breaks ground next month.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
In central Florida the car rules. A network of wide highways link sprawling cities.
But now two machines which saw their heyday in Florida more than a century ago are making a comeback: the train and the bike.
With the arrival of the SunRail commuter train in 2014 some cities are looking to bicycles as a way to get passengers to their final destination.
In Winter Park -- built in the late 1800s -- the city's sustainability coordinator Tim Maslow is thinking about how to incorporate cycling into the transportation mix. Maslow says the new SunRail and Amtrak train station could be a starting point for bike sharing.
“We see having a station here with maybe ten bikes at first to see how it goes," says Maslow. "You could go up to 20 bikes per station with some of the companies we’ve been looking at.”
One company talking with Winter Park is the Wisconsin based B-cycle, which is backed by the bike manufacturer Trek. In Denver, the company has some 50 bike share stations where users can rent their bikes, and B-cycle says the system works well with the city's light rail line. Train passengers use the bikes to go the last leg of their journey after getting off the train.
Bike sharing already has a foothold in South Florida, where Broward County has started a system. Sales manager Lee Jones went for a ride around Orlando on a recent visit. He says bike share stations around SunRail may have to be positioned to avoid the busiest roads.
“I did find some of the very wide streets, basically three lanes across, it was almost like being on the interstate," he says.
Some cities along the rail line are ideally situated for this back to the future approach to getting around.
Tim Maslow, from Winter Park, points out his city was designed so passengers could easily walk to and from the train station.
“That was before the automobile was so prevalent in everyone’s lives, so when they came down to the train station they actually had to go to different locations that were no longer than a 15-20 minute walk, because in Florida no one would walk that far,” says Maslow.
A return to cycling as a primary means of transportation may seem a bit old fashioned. But when the bicycle first appeared in America, it was high tech. In the 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman's Cassidy shows off a bicycle with the words: "meet the future."
The movie was set in the late 1800s, when the real-life Cassidy and the Kid were robbing trains in the American West.
In Florida at that time, rail barons were laying a network of tracks across the state, and the whole country was gripped by a cycling craze.
"It was huge in this country, huge," says Tim Bustos, the executive director of the Florida Bicycle Association.
"Next to the railroad, bicycling was like the most powerful transportation lobby out there. [Bicycles] were expensive, so it was mostly well to do and influential people that could afford them.”
And in the late 1800s, well-to-do people were taking the train to cities like Winter Park to spend their winter vacations.
Winter Park’s not the only place where rail and cycling could make a comeback.
The Florida Bicycle association’s headquartered in Deland, and Tim Bustos dreams of making the city a hub for cycling in the state.
He says SunRail’s completion in 2016 could help, by giving riders better access to a network of cycling trails. Bike share could also be part of the mix.
“People that would have rented a car five years ago, are now using bike shares," he says.
"It’s cheaper, it’s easier, it’s more enjoyable.”
Some DeLand cyclists have reservations- they say a safe route first has to be found from the train station to the city’s downtown, five miles away.
“We’re researching routes that could be bike friendly," says Ted Beyler, who owns the Deland Cyclery, one of two bicycle shops in Deland. Beyler’s on a chamber of commerce committee looking into the problem, and he says if that can be worked out, bike sharing could take off.
"That’s the major hindrance that I see is the proximity of the station to downtown Deland," says Beyler.
However, central Florida bicycle advocates agree that SunRail’s arrival brings with it a chance to begin a new chapter in the shared history of cycling and rail.
Friday, February 24, 2012
Rail safety experts worry that could lead to an increase in the number of motorists or pedestrians straying into the path of oncoming trains.
According to Federal Railroad Administration figures, rail crossing accidents have risen over the past 2 years after years of steady decline. In Florida in 2010, 67 people were involved in accidents at rail crossings, up from 48 the year before.
The Florida Department of Transportation says people will have to be extra vigilant once SunRail starts running.
“These railroad tracks, that had been active in the past, are going to be even more so, and these trains are going to be coming through quicker, they’re going to be quieter, and they just could sneak up on you," says Steve Olson from the Florida DOT.
So the agency is focusing on Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide rail safety education program.
Spokesman Jim Martin says the SunRail development is a good opportunity to get the safety message out.
"We have multiple lines here in Orange County, and in the Central Florida area, so my message is much broader than just the SunRail itself," he says.
And rail traffic could increase in Central Florida even after SunRail begins: the Florida DOT is commissioning two further studies looking into the potential for other commuter rail lines, one of them extending from Orlando to Eustis, and the other linking Orlando International Airport with the city.
Saturday, January 28, 2012
By Mark Simpson
(Orlando, Fla.) Congressman John Mica says he will unveil next Tuesday a major five-year transportation bill to allow more public private partnerships to expand the capacity of Interstate Highways.
Locally Mica, who Chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee, says that means creating new tolled lanes on Interstate 4. "What I’d like to do is double the amount of lanes we will have, express lanes that we will have in the center of I 4 going not just up in the Seminole county but into Volusia county. We’re working on that now," he said.
Mica made the announcement at Friday’s Sunrail Groundbreaking Ceremony in Altamonte Springs.
Expanding lane and toll capacity is also a major goal for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Friday, January 27, 2012
By Mark Simpson
(Orlando, Florida) State and local officials joined supporters of Central Florida’s commuter train SunRail to break ground on the project in Altamonte Springs Friday.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer Buddy reflected the positive mood surrounding the $1.2 billion project. "It’s a historic day for all of Central Florida, it ushers in a new era of transportation options for our residents, it ushers in jobs, smarter growth, so a very important day," he said.
But there are concerns that the SunRail line, which is slated to start service in the spring of 2014, will be relying on the regional bus service LYNX too heavily to bring passengers closer to major destinations.
Seminole County Commissioner Carlton Henley Chairs the LYNX Board of Directors.
He says LYNX is already struggling to provide services to its existing routes and that additional SunRail capacity highlights the need for a dedicated funding source for transportation programs." I would like to see, quite frankly, a sales tax approach," he said. "I don’t want to put any burden on property, but I think a regional sales tax would produce the revenue that’s need for both roads, rail, and bus."
The SunRail line will come in two phases and eventually connect along 61 miles of track between Deland and Poinciana.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
By Mark Simpson
(Orlando-WMFE) The start of 2011 held a fair amount of transportation-related optimism for Florida--and with good reason. The state looked on track to be one of the first in the nation to begin a high-speed rail line, Central Florida was eying commuter rail, and Florida's brand new governor, Rick Scott, was promising fresh thinking in Tallahassee.
But then Scott took office. And one of his first decisions was to freeze major state actions until after he reviewed them. His review of high-speed rail wasn't favorable, and in February, Scott joined Republican governors from Ohio and Wisconsin in rejecting federal funds for bullet trains. The move set off a flurry of activity to stop the Sunshine State from losing the more than $2 billion slated for the project. It also raised the blood pressure of rail supporters, who were now left wondering what Scott would do to central Florida’s promised SunRail commuter line.
The governor spent months reviewing SunRail and he approved it in July. Behind the scenes, though, powerful Republican Congressman John Mica, who chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee, had been watching Governor Scott’s moves. The governor was counting on Mica to approve $77 million dollars in federal funds to start deepening the port of Miami to accommodate Panamax ships. Mica made a connection between the Governor’s approving of SunRail and his approval of the $77 million.
Florida also rolled out a major roads program in August. It spells out proposals for creating new tolled lanes on Interstate 4 and completing a ring road around Orlando known as the Wekiva Parkway. But both programs could be susceptible to budget machinations which are set to start in next month in Tallahassee. Last year state lawmakers raided the transportation trust fund to the tune of more than $100 million dollars to fill a budget gap. Governor Scott says he’s loathe to pull that money out again, but he knows it's an option.
So all in all, Florida lost some high speed rail, gained SunRail, might get a major parkway around Orlando, will likely get deeper ports, and more toll roads. Money holds the key to all of it, and legislative session starts next month.
Read our other year in review posts here.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
By Mark Simpson
(WMFE, Orlando, Fla.) This week the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a $2.4 million dollar grant to the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council to develop transit options around Central Florida’s planned Sunrail commuter train stations.
The money comes in the form of a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. East Central Florida Regional Planning Council (ECFRPC) Commission Chair Cheryl L. Grieb says “The grant funding will support detailed station area planning for six of the 12 phase I Sunrail Stations, and affordable housing assessments for all 12 station areas.” Sunrail is slated to start running in 2014.
That wasn't the only transportation financing news for the area recently. Late last week the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority announced a tentative funding deal to build the $1.8 billion dollar Wekiva Parkway near Orlando. The highway would complete a ring-road network around the great metro Orlando region.
Under the proposal, the Expressway Authority would split ownership of the road with the Florida Department of Transportation. Expressway spokeswoman Lindsay Hodges says the arrangement is similar to deals with other major toll roads around Orlando. Details still need to be worked out between Fla. DOT and Metroplan Orlando.
Winter Park Congressman John Mica (R) urged the Expressway Authority to consider a variety of options to help fund the project. In a recent interview with WMFE, Mica, who chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee, suggested the private section could play a valuable role, "They should consider putting the toll roads up for private tender. I think that they could raise a tremendous amount of capital, finance projects like the Parkway, some expansion on I-4 without coming to the federal government." Parts of the Wekiva Expressway would be tolled under the current proposal.
Earlier this month, under pressure from Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and other political leaders, Expressway Authority chief Mike Syder resigned after questions over his financial management of the roads agency.
Monday, July 18, 2011
By Mark Simpson
(Orlando, WMFE) A long roster of dignitaries gathered at the location of the Florida Hospital SunRail stop in Orlando Monday to sign federal funding papers that will send $77 million towards construction of the commuter rail project.
U.S. Congressman John Mica, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Congresswoman Corrine Brown, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad, and Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff all sweated it out under a broiling July sky to sign the official agreement.
FTA chief Peter Rogoff says U.S. officials will stay involved with SunRail as the state builds stations and improves rail tracks along the route, “We have engineers doing regular oversight of the project, not just how the dollars are being spent, but also that things are on schedule being done to specs, and that’s an important part of our role to make sure things don’t go over budget or get delayed.”
Sunrail supporters hope that more than 13,000 jobs could come out of building commuter train stations, installing signals, and improving tracks along the 61 mile route.
Projections estimate more than 200,000 jobs could be created through related development projects in cities and towns across Central Florida.
The next major steps in the SunRail process include the physical groundbreaking, completing the sale of the tracks from rail company CSX for $432 million dollars, and acquiring locomotives and passenger cars.
Not everyone at the event was a SunRail supporter. At least one man stood with a sign that said, “Have a Brain, No Trains,” but the crowd was overwhelmingly positive overall.
More demonstrative of the anticipated development Sunrail is expected to bring, was an announcement from Florida Hospital officials that a new 90,000 square foot office building was going to be constructed adjacent to the Sunrail stop. The facility is expected to hold Florida Hospital and Adventist Health System’s new headquarters.