Thursday, March 8, 2018

SunRail needs YOUR political support

Recently we heard howls of unhappiness when residents learned that SunRail will not be running during the popular Winter Park Art Festival.

We share your frustration. SunRail service leaves much to be desired.

The problem, however, is bigger than the Winter Park Art Festival; weekend train service, or even SunRail.

SunRail during 2017 art festival

Don’t blame the people who operate the trains.

Blame the politicians who haven’t allocated the money necessary to provide the public transit service we need.

SunRail, like the Lynx bus system, is tragically underfunded. There is no dedicated funding source – such as a tax or a fee -- to support SunRail or Lynx. Every year Lynx begs Orlando and local counties for the money needed to keep the buses rolling.

The state is providing the money to keep SunRail running until 2021. Then SunRail becomes OUR (Orlando, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties) financial responsibility.

That bill will be more than $30 million annually. Where will that money come from? No one knows.

Anyone who tells you that SunRail and Lynx should be self sufficient -- without a taxpayer subsidy -- doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

There is no public transit system anywhere in the world that supports itself solely from the fare box. All transit systems, including airlines and the paved street outside your house, are subsidized by taxpayers.

Just because you have a car doesn’t mean you’re immune from the money crisis facing SunRail and Lynx.

There’s a good chance that the people who scrub the toilet at your job, or stack the shelves at your local supermarket, may not be able to afford cars because they aren’t paid a living wage. They rely on public transit – some riding two hours or more to and from work.

For those – like us – fortunate enough to own a car you probably noticed that traffic throughout Central Florida gets worse every day. Public transit offers people a cost-effective and stress-free alternative to driving.

The ongoing I-4 Ultimate Project, is not a solution to the road congestion. Additional lanes being added to I-4 will quickly reach capacity and compound Central Florida’s hopeless traffic jams.

Our awful traffic is very expensive.

A recent study showed that an average Orlando-area motorist wastes 32 hours a year stuck in congestion at a cost of $1,100 per driver. Our janky public transit system contributed to the Orlando-area’s low ranking in the competition to land Amazon’s second headquarters.

But there’s more. A recent investigative report in the Huffington Post showed how the poisonous exhaust fumes from the vehicles using Interstate 4 and the 408 are suffocating people living in downtown Orlando’s Parramore community. Today, it’s Parramore. Tomorrow it will be your neighborhood.

You may think greenhouses gases and global warming are a joke. We don’t.

Our community needs and deserves effective and convenient public transportation – both SunRail and Lynx.

If you’re pissed that you can’t ride SunRail to the Winter Park Art Festival, or on any weekend or late at night, then tell your city, county, state and federal elected officials that you demand more service.

Pols are paying attention. This is an election year.

Time is running out for SunRail.

See you on The Rail, but not at the art festival.

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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Guess who's coming to SunRail

We have it on good authority that in late July when SunRail officially launches service on its southern leg to Poinciana an unlikely guest of honor will be on hand to officiate.

Drumroll, please: Florida Gov. Rick Scott!
SunRail launch in 2014

Given that the Florida Department of Transportation is providing a lion share of the funds to operate SunRail, the governor’s presence seems appropriate. But Scott doesn’t exactly have a reputation for supporting passenger-rail alternatives to traffic-clogged highways.

Many remember that in 2011, one of Scott’s first actions as governor was to kill a planned high-speed rail system linking Tampa and Orlando. He turned down $2.4 billion from the federal government for the project. That money went to other states.

Thankfully, though, at the last minute – after much handwringing and begging by Central Florida leaders – Scott approved SunRail and its bare-bones budget that doesn’t include enough money for weekend and late-night service.

Those who attended the SunRail ribbon-cutting in April 2014 might recall that Scott did not attend that event.

Wonder if the fact that Scott is on the verge of announcing his candidacy to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson at the polls in November has anything to do with his desire to put in some face time at the upcoming SunRail event?

Who knows, maybe we’ll even see Scott on The Rail.

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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Are you ready for SunRail 2.0?

SunRail 2.0 will arrive in the summer of 2018 and we’re looking forward to it.
This new chapter of SunRail opens with the 17-mile extension of the commuter rail service into Osceola County.

Extending the service south will add four new SunRail train stations:

  • Meadow Woods in south Orange County, serving the sprawling Meadow Woods and Hunters Creek residential communities
  • Tupperware in Osceola County, serving the corporate headquarters of Tupperware and Osceola Parkway – a major crossroad in Osceola that stretches down into the Disney resort area.
  • Historic downtown Kissimmee. This station is certain to become a major destination for SunRail day trippers. Downtown Kissimmee is filled with restaurants and shops – half a block from the train station and adjacent to a Lynx bus Super Stop, an Amtrak station, a Greyhound bus station and the Kissimmee Civic Center. The train station is a 5-minute walk from Lake Toho’s waterfront park. For more, click here for a video sneak peek at some of the things downtown Kissimmee has to offer.
  • Poinciana, SunRail’s last station which is closest to Disney resort; a 5-minute bus ride to the popular Green Meadows Petting Farm and relatively close to the Polk County line. SunRail will also store a couple of trains in Poinciana and perform light maintenance on trains at this station.

This expanded service provides a great transportation option for many people who endure the aggravating traffic congestion on Interstate 4, Orange Avenue, the Orange Blossom Trail, John Young Parkway and US 192.

From our perspective, the best thing about extending SunRail into Osceola is that the commuter train will attract more riders.

Regular readers of this blog know that we’ve been disappointed in SunRail’s current ridership that is roughly 3,200 daily boardings. For the actual number of riders, you divide the boardings in half because the people who board the train to ride to work in the morning are pretty much the same people who board the train in the evening to ride home.

Some SunRail/FDOT officials predict SunRail 2.0 could add as many as 2,000 new riders to SunRail. We think that’s a credible estimate because many Orlando International Airport workers live in Osceola County. Even though there’s currently no direct rail link to OIA, the airport is a less than 10-minute bus ride from SunRail’s existing Sand Lake Road station. You can get a free transfer from SunRail to the Lynx bus at Sand Lake Road. There’s also talk of public or private express bus service between the Meadow Woods station and the airport. (An airport rail link will cost at least $200 million.)

The Poinciana station can draw more riders from nearby Polk County. There are already Polk County riders who drive up to the Sand Lake Road station to take SunRail to jobs in downtown Orlando, Winter Park and Seminole County.

Improving ridership is crucial to the long-term survival of SunRail, and key to expanding the service to weekends and late night.

SunRail 2.0 can’t arrive fast enough!

Click here for more SunRail news.

SunRail "Train to the Plane" is a good idea, but...

We really like SunRail’s “Train to the Plane” campaign to encourage more people to use the commuter train to reach Orlando International Airport.

Lynx bus 111 is pretty much a straight shot to the airport from the SunRail Sand Lake Road station. It’s less than 10 minutes between the train station and the airport terminal. Plus, you can get a free transfer from SunRail to ride the Lynx bus. That’s a pretty sweet deal.

The only problem is the train.

SunRail is America’s “most inconvenient train”.

Between the morning and evening rush hours there are SunRail service gaps of up to 2 ½ hours. On weekdays, the last northbound train leaves Sand Lake Road at 9:15 p.m. Worst yet, SunRail DOES NOT run on weekends or holidays.

For a few travelers to and from the airport, SunRail might work – especially if they don’t encounter flight delays.

For most, it is risky to include SunRail in your airport travel plans.

The train’s schedule has been a fundamental problem for SunRail since it launched operations more than three years ago. No wonder fewer than 2,000 ride the train daily.

The elected local officials who serve on the SunRail Commission proposed creating a rail link that would carry SunRail riders into the airport.

In an interview last year, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer – who chaired the SunRail commission at that time – said once SunRail had a rail link to the airport the train would HAVE TO run more frequently and on a 7-days a week schedule.

Extending SunRail to OIA is called Phase 3. The last we heard, that project is expected to cost at least $200 million. (Phase 2 southbound to Poinciana is expected to be completed by summer 2018.)

Here’s a bulletin for you.

That mythical SunRail Phase 3 is not going to happen. Or at least it’s not going to happen any time soon, despite the fact a special terminal has already been built at the airport for SunRail and other non-existent rail services.

Airport terminal for non-existent trains

Based on what we have seen so far from the Trump administration, it’s unlikely the feds will fork over the money needed to build and equip that airport rail link. A proposed SunRail extension to DeLand also is unlikely to happen because money isn’t forthcoming.

Like the pundits say: Elections have consequences.

Regardless, we can still make the train to the plane link viable.

Lynx is already doing its part providing frequent bus service to the Sand Lake Road station.

SunRail needs to cough up the money to run the train at least 18 hours a day and on the weekends.

That’s what Tri-Rail (South Florida’s version of SunRail) did for 20 years. They used a combination of the train and a bus and it worked pretty good. In fact, it was only until 2015 that they completed a rail link to Miami International Airport.

Improving SunRail’s schedule is essential to its survival.

In case you didn’t know, the clock is running out on SunRail.

The Florida Department of Transportation is paying SunRail’s operating cost until the summer of 2021. Then those expenses become the responsibility of Orlando, and Orange, Osceola and Volusia counties. SunRail’s daily ridership – fewer than 2,000 – is so low that the cost of collecting fares is more than the amount brought in with fares. It’s not the train. It’s the fault of the awful schedule.

Do you think taxpayers will pick up an annual tab of nearly $30 million for a train that runs bankers’ hours and only Monday through Friday?

We don’t.

That’s why the schedule needs to be fixed, not just for the airport, but for all the destinations on the SunRail corridor.

Click here for more SunRail news.