Three years before it's scheduled to roll, Florida's $1.2 billion SunRail commuter train is sputtering with talk of possible cost overruns.
The solution? Rob roads to run rails.
A draft agreement by the Florida Department of Transportation envisions that extra operating revenues "will come from the FDOT work program in the geographic area of the local government partners that choose not to provide additional funding."
Central Florida officials say they're OK with the idea of diverting money from road projects, but critics say they hear a giant sucking sound coming from the commuter-rail venture.
Though the Federal Transit Administration forecasts SunRail's initial daily ridership at 4,300 passengers, rising to 7,400 by 2030, those numbers are barely half the volume carried by South Florida's commuter line -- which has hemorrhaged red ink for more than two decades.
The 71-mile TriRail service between Miami and Palm Beach has never broken even in its 23-year history -- even though it serves the most densely populated urban corridor in the state.
Carrying some 13,000 passengers daily, TriRail still needs $13 million to $15 million in annual subsidies to keep running.
For the amount of subsidies it received this year, state and local governments could have leased new Nissan Altimas for all TriRail riders at $199 per month.
SunRail advocates say the SunRail tie-in with a proposed $2.6 billion high-speed rail line linking Tampa and Orlando will help curb the need for new roads. Yet, surface-street and freeway construction has continued apace along the South Florida corridor since TriRail started running in 1987.
Even if SunRail's numbers work out, FDOT's road-robbing formula could be problematic, says Mark Wylie, president and CEO of the Central Florida chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.
Citing reports that an extra lane might not be added to Colonial Drive (U.S. 50) along the north side of Orlando, Wylie said the state would be worsening congestion on a major east-west arterial.
"If they need to cut projects, they should look at north-south access" that parallels SunRail's footprint, Wylie said.
The Federal Transit Administration, which is paying half the $1.2 billion capital cost of SunRail, wants a commitment that Florida and participating local governments will run the train for at least 20 years.
Local governments initially wanted the right to opt out if SunRail's operating costs grew more than 5 percent above forecasts. The FTA balked, so FDOT proposed covering any overruns with local road allocations.
Municipalities will be asked to approve the plan by the end of May.
FDOT will own SunRail and cover all operating and maintenance costs for the first seven years. By spring 2013, the train is scheduled to roll on 31 miles of CSX track. That stretch extends from DeBary in Volusia County through downtown Orlando and into south Orange County.
After FDOT turns the project over, seven Central Florida municipalities will be responsible for $7.8 million in annual operating subsidies. Skeptics say that's a low-ball estimate.
"Establishing rail service from scratch, or from near scratch, on a limited taxpayer budget that could just as easily go toward constructing or repairing roads, seems in some cases political gesturing," says Cheryl Chumley of the Heartland Institute in Chicago.
"The combination of train, bus and taxi service is likely to be significantly more expensive than a simple automobile trip, further discouraging ridership," she stated.
Chumley is similarly skeptical about the prospects for the high-speed rail system along the I-4 corridor.
"This 'high-speed' service will have trouble attracting riders because it will take about as long as a typical automobile trip," she said.
"Because five stops are planned along the proposed high-speed train route between Tampa and Orlando, the train will shave only about 30 minutes off of the 84-mile trip.
"The time savings will be reduced still further or altogether eliminated by the time commuters must spend at the train station waiting for the train to arrive and by time spent after the train ride acquiring and utilizing local transportation to reach the commuters ultimate destination," Chumley concluded.
Robert Poole, a transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation, recently compared the expense of the high-speed line with the cost of adding a lane in each direction to I-4. He determined that price tag for the rail system was more than three times higher than the cost of building new lanes -- and that the official rail cost projections were vastly underestimated.
Florida voters saw fiscal problems coming in 2004, when they repealed a 2000 constitutional amendment that had authorized a high-speed rail system. But, with the infusion of $1.25 billion in federal stimulus funds last January, state officials resurrected the idea.
In addition to the federal funding for SunRail and $432 million the 2010 Legislature agreed to spend for CSX right of way, FDOT had intended to borrow $173 million more for the project.
But, in a bit of good news, the Orlando Sentinel reported Monday that bids for the commuter line are coming in so low that the agency expects to have enough cash on hand to forgo the bonds... for now.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.