Organizers celebrate Orlando commuter rail signing

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — After a lengthy wait, including much debate and several false starts, Orlando made its biggest steps to date toward seeing the groundbreaking of a new commuter rail.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood participated in a signing ceremony Monday afternoon that will authorize the first $77 million of more than $600 million in federal funding for the planned SunRail project. When completed it will cost $1.3 billion and eventually cover 61 miles — with 17 stops — connecting downtown Orlando with Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties.

The entire SunRail project is slated for completion in 2016 and will be built in two phases. The first phase is marked for a 2014 end date and is a 31-mile stretch from DeBary to Orlando. Phase 2 will run from DeLand to Poinciana and wrap up two years later. The project aims to relieve the gridlock on Interstate 4, which runs through the region, and in turn help reduce accidents on the roadway as well.

The funding authorization LaHood signed was for about half of the price tag for the entire project. The state's share of the costs is expected to be $432 million to purchase 61.5 miles of track from CSX and another $66 million for operating subsidies. The collection of local municipalities will foot the capital costs.

"These are the days that we live for," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who chairs the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission.

While the project will bring some much-needed jobs to the state, critics of the project have argued for years that the rail's use won't justify the money being committed by state and local governments. Others, including Governor Rick Scott, have also voiced concerns about Florida being stuck with the bill should federal funds not come through because of on-going budget issues.

Gov. Scott approved the project earlier this month after initially voicing concerns about its feasibility and cost. His go-ahead was anything but a sure thing. Shortly after taking office, Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed train line from Orlando to Tampa.

Many feared the same fate would befall SunRail before Scott, who delayed a decision in the project for six months after taking office, gave it a green light earlier this month.

Standing in the shadows of what will be Florida Hospital SunRail station at the edge of downtown Orlando, both LaHood and Dyer reminisced about the journey it took to get the project to this point.

"When I took that (rail commission chairman) job I thought it would be a quick victory lap around the legislature," Dyer said. "But it turned out to be more than that."

Dyer recalled LaHood telling officials in Orlando once that they "needed to get our act together" to bring SunRail to fruition. LaHood said they answered that call.

"When people want to know the definition of this vision thing — this is it," LaHood said. "Central Florida got its act together and look what's happening."

Opponents of Scott's decision, led mainly by Tea Party activists, contend the commuter rail is a mistake whose operation costs won't justify the paltry ridership predicted in car-loving Orlando. Forecasts projected as few as 2,500 people a day would initially use the line.

Those in favor, however, have argued that thousands of jobs stand to be created for construction. Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown put that number at least 11,000 on Monday. That number, proponents say, would go up over the life of the rail system.

And to satisfy some forecasters' fear of low rider numbers, Florida Hospital has pledged to help subsidize ridership. Team officials with the NBA's Orlando Magic have also said they would help steer riders to the new rail.

Regardless of what the initial usage numbers are, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said it will bring needed relief to travelers in the area. He also said the outcome of this project will affect Florida's future.

"We cannot buy our way out of congestion," he said. "We need transportation options...The bottom line is we have to make SunRail a success for any future transportation projects."

Said Republican Congressman John Mica: "We have to look at where these projects make sense...There's nothing more cost-effective. To get 2,000 cars in an hour on the interstate, it will cost $1.5 billion per lane. This can move three to 18,000 people per hour for a fraction of the cost."

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