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Hillsborough leaders tour Orlando’s SunRail, hoping for a train of their own

A downtown-USF line would carry more passengers than Orlando’s densest stretch. But could it run cheaper?

ORLANDO — The plan Thursday morning was for a group of Hillsborough leaders to tour Orlando’s commuter rail line, SunRail.

Except there was a problem: The county commissioners got stuck in traffic on their way and the train left without them.

“People are spending hours sitting on I-4 trying to get from one place to another,” SunRail’s deputy program manager Sandra Gutierrez told the Hillsborough contingent. “You talk to these people who have transformed their commute from a highway system to a commuter rail system, and it’s just night and day.”

“I think we had that true life experience today,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp quipped, after meeting up with the others later in the morning.

A SunRail commuter rail train pulls into the Lynx Central Station in Orlando Thursday. [ CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Caitlin Johnston ]

Kemp and fellow commissioner Mariella Smith joined a group of about a dozen Hillsborough transportation officials who spent the morning learning about the Orlando commuter rail system that launched in May 2014.

Transit supporters are hoping that SunRail, a freight-turned-commuter rail service, could be a model for a similar venture using CSX rail lines in Tampa.

Related: CSX finally opens the door to commuter rail in Tampa Bay

Smith left the two-hour session with Orlando transit officials with one prevailing feeling: envy.

“It seems like a lot of community partners and energy, from private sector to public grant funding," Smith said while waiting on a platform to catch a train back to the cars that brought them. "A lot of things came together and it happened very quickly.”

Hillsborough leaders who toured SunRail in Orlando on Thursday included County Commissioner Mariella Smith, left, aide Amanda Brown, and Beth Alden, Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director. [ CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Caitlin Johnston ]

Negotiations with CSX in Orlando started in 2004, followed by an agreement with local governments in 2007. In 2010, the Florida Department of Transportation committed to paying for the rail corridor and acquired it from CSX the following year. Construction started in 2012, and the first line — 32 miles — opened in 2014.

Since then, a 17-mile southern expansion has opened and ridership grew from just under 1 million in the first fiscal year to about 1.5 million in 2019. Much of the increase is attributed to the opening of the second line in 2018.

“You have to give it time,” SunRail’s marketing consultant Mark Calvert said. “It won’t change overnight. People aren’t going to get rid of their cars and try this ... but if the system is reliable, if it’s clean and you believe in it, (ridership) will come.”

Related: Plans unveiled for dedicated bus lanes from downtown Tampa to USF

The service is costly. The state spent $357 million on the first line and another $187 on the second. Annual operating cost, which the state has covered for the first seven years, is about $48.5 million. Starting next year, the four partner counties and the city of Orlando will be responsible for that amount.

Among those taking part in a tour of Sunrail on Thursday by Hillsborough leaders were Stephen Benson, left, Tampa's head of urban transportation planning; Ming Gao, transportation planning manager with the state Department of Transportation; and marketing consultant Mark Calvert. [ CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Caitlin Johnston ]

“We all know when we get down to the final decision, basically everything comes down to money,” director of operations Michael Carman said.

The numbers came out to about $32 per passenger trip in 2019.

Stephen Benson, a transportation planner with the city of Tampa, asked whether officials in Orlando considered the number high and what could be done to bring it down.

SunRail representatives mentioned efforts to partner with events and local senior communities, along with advertising the service as an entertainment option for families. Morning and evening commute times are nearly full already, Calvert said.

The service doesn’t run the weekends or at night. And there isn’t money currently to buy additional train cars needed to expand frequency and hours.

“When you look at the cost per passenger, we can’t just focus on what is it costing the public,” said Libertad Acosta-Anderson, rail and transit supervisor for Orlando’s division of the state transportation department. “To maintain your roads, your lights, your pavement, it’s costing you, too.”

Among those taking part in a tour of Sunrail on Thursday by Hillsborough leaders were, from left, Ming Gao with the Florida Department of Transportation, Tampa urban transportation planning head Stephen Benson, County Commissioner Pat Kemp, and Sarah McKinley and Beth Alden with the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization. [ CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Caitlin Johnston ]

For more than three decades, Tampa Bay leaders have batted about the idea of converting freight rail to a passenger service.

The bay area once had a Tampa Bay Commuter Rail Authority that pushed the concept in the 1990s but struggled to drum up support or funding. The agency folded soon after.

Hillsborough transit advocates have pushed for one line in particular recently. It starts in Tampa, passes by the University of South Florida, cuts through Land O’Lakes in Pasco County and finishes in central Hernando County, near Brooksville.

CSX analyzed its lines several years ago and found that this route, along with another, carried minimal freight traffic and could be used for passenger rail.

Advocates, including Kemp, are interested in the 10-mile stretch between downtown and USF. Cost estimates vary, depending on the year and parameters of study, but it could cost $500 million to $1 billion to build and an additional $12 million in local annual operating costs.

SunRail marketing consultant Mark Calvert leads a tour Thursday of Orlando's commuter rail system for Hillsborough transportation officials. [ CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Caitlin Johnston ]

As the SunRail car rattled along, Beth Alden, executive director of Hillsborough’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, listed off the benefits of a Tampa to USF line: It connects two of the area’s top three job clusters, it’s anchored by downtown and a major university, and it cuts through walkable neighborhoods with substantial bus ridership, she said.

The latest projection shows rail ridership in 2040 at about 3,500 people per day along the downtown-USF stretch. That’s close to the ridership on SunRail’s first line, but on a segment that’s a third of the length.

Related: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

SunRail’s stations can be more than four miles apart, but Alden said the distance between stops would likely be much shorter in Tampa. The effect would be more like light rail, serving denser populations rather than carrying riders in from the suburbs to a central job location.

“There’s a lot that lines up here,” Alden said. “The blocks that we do have, those things are all doable, as evidenced by SunRail here.”

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