ORLANDO — Central Florida will embark this spring on one of its largest mass transportation experiments when service begins on the first 32-mile phase of the $1.2 billion SunRail commuter train, an effort to ease nightmarish traffic and protect the region's long-term economic health.
Currently, tens of thousands of commuters and tourists cram a few main highways and roads in this popular, fast-growing area. The first phase — 12 stations from DeBary in Volusia County through downtown Orlando to Sand Lake Road in Orange County — will be the ultimate viability test case for an area that has never had this kind of transportation alternative before. And with promised federal money for the second phase suspended in Washington budget limbo, the success or failure of SunRail's initial stage will garner an even brighter spotlight.
"This is a dramatic evolution step for Central Florida. It's the first time we're building a fixed transit system — a regional one — with the ability of being able to connect into high-speed (rail)," said U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Republican from Winter Park and a member of the House Transportation Committee.
Gov. Rick Scott rejected more than $2 billion in federal high-speed rail funding in 2011 that would have connected Tampa and Orlando. But after some hesitation, he eventually approved a deal that opened construction for SunRail after being sold on its jobs creation benefits and potential to reduce congestion on Interstate 4, the region's main east-west highway.
But now federal budget cuts have cast at least some doubt on whether another $80 million in funding will be there for the on-time construction of Phase 2, which will extend the rail line farther north into Volusia County and south into Osceola County. When completed, it would stretch the rail to 17 stations and 62 miles.
Construction for the next phase was scheduled to begin next summer, but there are no guarantees SunRail will be included in the 2014 federal transportation budget.
It has caused lobbying efforts to intensify locally and in Washington, with opinions differing about what will happen.
"I know a lot of local business leaders went to D.C. to make the point about trying to make sure to continue to help build it, and get the momentum going," Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said.
Mica said Phase 2 will have the system's highest ridership, according to projections, and he expects that the expansion will be looked upon favorably with Phase 1 nearly complete.
Optimism also runs high in the affected communities, where growth makes alternative transportation attractive.
MetroPlan Orlando, a regional planning organization, projects that the three-county metro area of Orange, Seminole and Osceola will grow more than 70 percent by 2030.
While the 18-to-35-year-old demographic is migrating toward urban city centers, there are segments that are working and residing in surrounding counties.
It's why persuading a chunk of that group to ride SunRail during the initial rollout has been a focus.
Since 2012, the state transportation department has been having "lunch and learn" sessions to reach out to businesses to tap those prospective riders. The Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce got a grant to promote the train and explain why employers should encourage their workers to ride it.
There has also been a push to bring retail and residential options close to stations.
Prasad said there are 15 projects within a 10-minute walk of the initial stations with an almost $800 million construction value. He said that included about 3,700 new residential units around the stations and new hotel projects.
There are concerns along the initial route for some residents, though.
Christine Watkins, 63, and president of the South Seminole Community Association for Progress, lives in a predominantly black community in East Altamonte, about 2 miles from the SunRail station there. She says residents fear they could eventually be encouraged to move to other areas to make way for development near the station. That is something that happened in the historically black Hannibal Square district in Winter Park years ago.
"We don't want that to happen here," she said.