ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — 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 the 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.
Florida 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 currently no guarantees SunRail will be included in the 2014 federal transportation budget.
It's 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. "I think ultimately that's needed. We need that federal budget certainty ... and I know everybody is working hard to get there."
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat who serves alongside Mica on the transportation committee, said in a statement last month that not having a 2014 transportation budget and the potential for an additional $100 million in cuts next year "has brought a high level of uncertainty and a limitation on the ability to fund new transit projects."
But she added she had spoken to Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff about SunRail's importance and would also reach out to President Barack Obama.
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.
"I hope it's in the president's budget. If not, there are alternatives ... to continue the work," he said.
Mica said one of those is spreading the project out over the next two fiscal years, though that could affect construction plans. Either way, he said, he believes it will move forward.