May 04

What’s Next For SunRail? Talks About More Money.

"How big city," I couldn't help but think as I boarded SunRail this week to ride to work. 

Then, as soon as I sat down, I ran into a family I hadn't seen in years, and we chatted from Altamonte Springs to Lynx Central, the stop that is just a couple of blocks from my downtown office.

Nope, I thought, still a small town.

Melodie Bergeron and Charlene Goss know what I mean.

The two are old friends who live in Lake Mary but hadn't seen each other in years.

Until, coincidentally, they decided to give SunRail a try on the same day about two months ago.

They bumped into each other at the station and realized they both work for companies in SunTrust Tower. 

"Now we ride together two or three days a week," Goss said.

She said she likes how easy SunRail is to use and how it gets her off Interstate 4. 

"We're the little town that thought we could," she said.

And we did.

One year ago, Central Florida, a place where wider, bigger and faster roads have long ruled, started a commuter rail that is changing how people get around.

The trains are clean. They run on time — barring motorists who don't understand rail arms. And a lot of people have found they prefer leisurely surfing the Web on their phone over gripping a steering wheel. 

I like how this region seems to hold on to its small-town feel even as the census oracles say it's become among the fastest-growing places in the nation.

"A lot of the regular riders sit in the same seats every day … kind of like church," said Noranne Downs, local secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.

How quaint.

I never thought I would say that about a major metropolitan rail system.

This first year proved Orlando is ready for a train.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to expand it and turn SunRail from a Monday-through-Friday commuter train to a true seven-day alternative to your car.

Nighttime service and weekend service are the two biggest demands from potential riders.

But that wasn't figured into the original budget. Neither was expanding the train to Orlando International Airport. Or Daytona Beach.

It's going to come down to money.

With one year down, the city of Orlando and four counties have six years before the state stops paying and they have to foot the bill to operate SunRail.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who has been the train's most vocal champion from the start, says he and other elected officials aren't sweating it.

"It's a fairly nominal amount for any of the five local governments," he said, noting Orlando's portion will be about $2.1 million a year. "That equates to what we spend on sidewalks."

But expanded service?

Orlando and Orange, Seminole, Volusia and Osceola counties will have to come up with more money for that.

Among the possibilities: a new tax that the counties take to their voters. Or, potentially, revenue from toll roads. The new regional expressway authority also has the authority to operate transit.

Dyer said that could mean that extra money collected from tolls might one day be used to support SunRail.

Those are the conversations this community must have. And fast.

The first year went by in a flash. The next six will go just as swiftly.

More people like Iris Cobos, a very recent convert, are counting on Central Florida to keep its only alternative to I-4.

Until Thursday, she had never taken the train before. But her car was in the shop, and her husband offered to drive her from their home in Lake Mary to Orlando Health, where she works.

Or, she thought, she could take SunRail.

"I like it," she said as Winter Park's Park Avenue glided by on her way back home.

With daily ridership trending at more than 4,000, she's not alone.

Maybe it has something to do with how Central Florida's brand of urban transit feels more like meeting at the corner store.

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By Beth Kassab, Orlando Sentinel
10:24 PM EDT, May 1, 2015