Special Report to Central Florida Politics and Freeline Media Orlando by former Winter Park City Commissioner Beth Dilliha and Winter Park Commuter Rail Committee member George McClure.
Why SunRail Should be Rejected by Governor Scott
The proposed SunRail commuter rail project is a diesel heavy rail project (as opposed to light rail) devised to run on a 61.5-mile portion of CSX-owned rails from Volusia to Osceola counties. There would be 56 daily commuter services would run with 32 running initially. There will be no weekend or holiday service. Commuter rail would not go to the airport or attractions. 17 stations are planned over the 61.5-mile corridor.
The project has been fraught with problems since conception resulting in rejection by the state legislature twice. It ultimately received a green light on the third try in December of 2009 when it was tied to High Speed Rail. Currently, Governor Scott is scrutinizing the costs, risks for cost overruns and return on investment to the taxpayers that would fund it.
Problems with SunRail include 1) extraordinarily high costs to build and run the system, 2) lack of a funding source for the annual operating deficits and maintenance costs, 3) grossly overestimated farebox revenues, 4) a low ridership projection of 3700, 5) low marks from the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) in terms of cost effectiveness and need, 6) old-style diesel technology, 7) shifting of liability for accidents, injuries and deaths from CSX to the Florida taxpayers, 8) lack of feeder buses to take commuters to final destinations, and 9) lack of approval or support from taxpaying voters.
SunRail has a first year start-up cost of $1.2 Billion. Purchasing the tracks from CSX for the highest price per mile ever paid in the U.S. is a bad idea and unnecessary, since CSX and Norfolk Southern lease access to their tracks for commuter rail in northern Virginia while retaining responsibility for maintenance. In addition, Florida taxpayers would pay 100% of the annual operating and maintenance costs for 99 years while CSX gets to use the tracks 50% of the time.
Operating and maintenance costs for start-up rail projects are underestimated by 40%, on average, according to APTA (American Public Transit Association). FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) is projecting that over 50% of operating costs will be paid for with revenue from the farebox even though the national average is 23% farebox recovery. So, we know that the revenues will be far less than estimated while annual costs will be far greater. FTA also knows this and has required FDOT to guarantee an additional source of funding when the county caps are exceeded. The solution, unbeknownst to Central Floridians, is to cannibalize funds from existing road and other infrastructure projects, eliminating those necessary projects. The irony is that stealing the highway money to pay SunRail costs would eliminate the I-4 improvement that commuter rail was supposed to help, by removing cars from I-4 while it was upgraded.
SunRail needs a full, sustained dedicated funding source for operation, but doesn’t have it. SunRail would be funded by FDOT for the first seven years of operation, then by the four counties, Orlando, Winter Park and Maitland. The penny sales tax that was counted on in Seminole County expires this year. Past efforts to raise transit funds by sales tax in Orange County have failed; there is now a half-cent local option sales tax for schools. With no dedicated funding, two localities can exercise a right to drop out from service, raising the cost for the remaining fifteen stops.
The use of 19th century diesel locomotives for SunRail would commit Florida to technology that is fast becoming outdated. Electrification of the commuter line (vs diesel locomotives) would permit operating electric locomotives, as is done in the northeast corridor, and as Amtrak has as a long-term goal across the United States. That would permit service by fixed power plants with emission controls burning coal (nearly half our electricity now comes from coal-fired plants) or natural gas, or by nuclear power.
Another fly in the ointment is the liability insurance that CSX insists that the state buy for SunRail, and your Florida legislators approved, to cover everything except willful misconduct by the company or its employees or subsidiaries. Note that Amtrak paid $63.8 million after an accident caused by a faulty CSX switch at Lugoff, SC, that killed eight people. http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6931 .
In summary, only 2% of Floridians use public transit. Our results for SunRail will be worse, especially if there is no funding to provide feeder buses to meet each train and carry riders in both directions (at least 112 buses per day for 56 trains. SunRail, with only 3700 projected riders, should not be allowed to cannibalize funding from planned road and other transportation projects used and needed by the vast majority. Nor, should a project with funding requirements for 99 years be allowed to be approved without first obtaining a sustainable and dedicated source of funding. And the voting taxpayers are entitled to decide whether this is an appropriate use of their scarce taxpayer dollars. This is an ill-conceived project that should be killed.
This article was written and contributed by George McClure, former member of the Winter Park Commuter Rail Task Force and Beth Dillaha, former Winter Park City Commissioner.