Come 2022 we could be reading SunRail’s obituary.
No not due to lack of ridership, but rather due to lack of money.
Under the deal that launched SunRail, the Florida Department of Transportation is shouldering much of the financial burden for commuter train through the completion of the I-4 Ultimate construction project.
Once construction is completed SunRail becomes the financial responsibility of Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties and the city of Orlando.
Last year it cost $35 million to run SunRail. The fare box covered about 20 percent of the cost. Like schools and public safety, almost all public transit throughout the world has to be underwritten by taxpayers. The overall cost for running SunRail is certain to rise as train service is expanded into Osceola County, and hopefully to DeLand in Volusia County.
It scares us that so far we’ve heard very little discussion of how money will be raised to pay for SunRail when FDOT’s commitment ends.
2022 seems far away, but anyone who has watched a child bloom from an infant to a young adult will tell you that the years flash by. No doubt some of our current elected officials figure they will have left office by the time the bill comes due. And then what?
Our elected officials have neglected public transportation for decades.
LYNX, the public bus system serving Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, has been scraping by like a pauper. Now SunRail faces the prospect of joining LYNX in line with a beggar’s cup.
The core problem is there is no dedicated funding source – such as a sales tax -- for public transit. Every year LYNX has to plead for operating dollars. The result is there are only 300 buses in the LYNX fleet. Realistically LYNX needs at least 600 buses to provide reasonable service – 15 to 20-minute waits – to all bus stops, including those at SunRail stations. VOTRAN in Volusia County is in the same boat with LYNX. It has fewer than 60 buses in its fleet that serves communities from DeBary to Daytona Beach.
Shortcomings in the public bus system undermine SunRail’s ridership. Many people are reluctant to use SunRail because they know when they get off the train they will have a long wait or difficult time getting from some SunRail stations to their final destination.
The first step is to reunite LYNX and SunRail under the same roof. Currently one local authority is limited to overseeing the bus system and a new authority was established to oversee SunRail. This arrangement is the result of a big flap back in 2002 when some local transit authority officials were caught goofing off during a business trip. This embarrassment occurred more than a decade before SunRail was born.
As Taylor Swift would say: “Shake it off.” What happened in the past is ancient history. It’s time to recreate a single entity to run both commuter trains and buses. That’s the first step to get proper funding for both Lynx and SunRail. Anything less would invite officials to shortchange commuters by playing trains against buses. We need both trains and buses
Traffic in New York City is nothing to brag about. But travel conditions there would be much worse if the city didn’t have a unified public transit system.
Central Florida deserves a unified transit system that will serve our community well for the next 100 years.