Orlando commuter rail gets the go-ahead

Governor Rick Scott, a Tea Party-backed Republican, announced July 1 that the state will not stand in the way of a commuter rail line that has long been sought in the Orlando area.

Scott put the project on hold last January, making clear that he was not a fan of the 61-mile rail line, which would serve downtown Orlando and points north and south. A June 27  article in The New York Times portrayed the project as a boondoggle — costing $1.2 billion, yet serving only an estimated 2,150 commuters a day when it starts operating in 2014.

The governor's approval "ends the region's 30-year struggle to come up with a transportation alternative to cars and buses," the Orlando Sentinel reported. "Previous attempts that included magnetically levitated trains and light rail have failed."

"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 Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad. He said local government partners "supported a commuter rail system and the local governments will participate in any 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."

"Needless to say, this is a great day for Central Florida," the Sentinel quoted Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs as saying. "We can all breath a lot easier now, literally and figuratively." Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a staunch SunRail supporter, issued a statement saying, "Securing this once-in-a-generation project has not been easy. As the saying goes, nothing worth doing is ever easy."

Rep. John Mica, a Republican from Winter Park who heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was instrumental in winning a federal pledge of more than $300 million for the train. He said, "This is as significant for the state as when Henry Flagler brought the railroad to Florida and when President Eisenhower initiated the Interstate. This transportation alternative offers the only real cost-effective, near-term solution for our region's highway congestion, and will have tremendous benefits for employment."

The state budget that went into effect July 1 contains $269 million that will help the project go forward. Most of that sum will be used to buy the rail route from the freight railroad CSX. 

Several months ago, Scott killed plans for a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa. Some have accused him of being inconsistent in stopping the high-speed line but approving the commuter rail line, which is said to suffer from some of the same flaws — notably  a lack of convenient connections once riders get off the train.

The Times noted that SunRail fared poorly in US Department of Transportation reviews. DOT found that "large numbers of commuters heading from one point in the suburbs to another would" on SunRail would have "to undertake a bus-to-rail-to-bus trip," a travel pattern not required by any existing commuter rail service in the US.