The deal was extremely controversial, and locals' anger regarding the project grew exponentially when Gov. Rick Scott rejected more than $2 billion in federal funds for a high-speed rail line running from Tampa to Orlando. At the time, state taxpayer funds weren't required for the project to move forward.
Construction for the 61-mile project in Central Florida has begun, and Monday at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's (PSTA) Advisory Committee meeting, board members heard from Harry Barley — MetroPlan Orlando Executive Director — about the project's development.
The PSTA is moving toward forming a ballot measure for the creation of a light-rail system in Pinellas County, and Barley's presentation was considered another step in educating them about the process.
Barley told the board that 17 separate commuter rail stations are being built for the SunRail system in two phases. The first phase is set to open in May 2014, and the rest in 2016.
"When you talk about commuter rail or light rail, it's amazing how much confusion is out there," Barley said.
He added that when people in the Orlando area hear about SunRail construction, they think it will be extended to Miami or Tampa Bay (the confusion comes from an announcement earlier this year that a private group is planning to build a high-speed rail line from Miami to Orlando).
The project is slated to cost $615 million, with the federal government picking up half the expense. The Florida Department of Transportation will pay for the remaining 50 percent for the first seven years of operation. But by 2022, the four counties in the region and the city of Orlando must pick up the tab.
Barley said this was not the Orlando/Orange County region's first attempt at a rail — a light rail project "imploded" back in 1999, which Barley called, "A huge disappointment."
He said because it's a commuter rail there will be a, "modest level of service."
This means once the commute period ends, the trains won't run as often. There will be no weekend service and trains will come every two hours at non-peak times.
"This is not like what people are used to when it comes every five or ten minutes," Barley said.
For 23 years, Barley worked with the transit authority in Washington D.C. helping to create the metro system.
Like other transit advocates, he talked up transit-oriented-development, as his slide presentation included newspaper headlines of developers seeking to build near SunRail stops. He also said there's lots of excitement at stations that are bare or, "blank canvasses."
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch asked Barley if the project's costs include upgrading of public buses.
Barley said that, "funding for transit in Orlando is tough these days." He could have substituted "Tampa" or "St. Pete" for his own city.
He said he's hoping that private companies will be able to financially contribute, particularly where better bus service could deliver their employees to the various rail stations.
He said that in 2022, when the state funding dries up, there is no dedicated source of funding to maintain the system.
Back in June, the New York Times reported that among all nationwide projects in final design, this project is ranked last in cost effectiveness by the federal Department of Transportation.