Today is the day mass-transit enthusiasts have been waiting for in Metro Orlando for decades: the SunRail commuter train starts running for real.
But on its inaugural day, it could feel more like a new theme-park attraction — for locals — as retirees and other curious Central Floridians join commuters riding the train.
"We just want to go out and then back," said Ron VanKleeck, an 85-year-old retired mechanic who lives with his wife about 4 miles from the Lake Mary station.
The first SunRail train was to take on its initial passengers at 5:06 a.m. in Sanford, then head south, eventually stopping about an hour later at Sand Lake Road, the last of 12 stations.
Shortly after 6 a.m., that train will move north, taking anyone who was waiting at Sand Lake. During the morning and evening peak hours, up to five trains will be rolling along the corridor's 12 stations.
SunRail officials have shied from making any ridership guesses for Day One, though they expect to eventually average more than 4,300 passengers daily. With free rides during its first 12 days of operation, SunRail could top that goal.
Urban planner Eliza Harris intends to be one of those riders. She lives in the Lake Como area a couple of miles east of downtown Orlando, where she works. She rides her bike to her job, so she has no need for SunRail, which largely parallels Interstate 4 as it goes north to south in the region. But she contends the $1.2 billion operation is a game changer.
If successful, she said, the train could lead to denser, more compact development along its 31.5-mile route, as well as take cars off the road. And one fewer car, she said, actually translates into more than one fewer trip.
"It's also when you go out to lunch, run errands from the office. You're not in a car," Harris said.
SunRail is counting on attracting many of its riders from I-4, Central Florida's main transportation artery since opening in 1965, six years before Disney World debuted about 20 miles down the road from downtown. I-4 has grown increasingly clogged through the decades and is about to undergo a $2.1 billion makeover through downtown.
The construction will add four toll lanes down the middle of the highway. It could start late next year and last until 2021. That's a long time to battle building-related congestion, SunRail proponents say, providing opportunity to convert motorists into train commuters.
SunRail's debut comes after several unsuccessful attempts to start a system stretching back to the 1980s, and it is the region's first fixed-rail commuter mass-transit operation.
SunRail operators envision the train, with its free Wi-Fi and spacious, air-conditioned cars, rolling along the tracks as car and truck drivers fume in snarled traffic.
Of course, there could be problems with SunRail, too, even though its celebratory run on Wednesday carrying area leaders and media went off flawlessly. The train was on time the entire way, and passengers were impressed with its smooth ride and comfortable interior.
Detractors predict SunRail will be a waste of taxpayer money because Central Florida residents are too enamored of their cars to leave them for a train.