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FDOT, Brightline, to investigate SunRail’s connection with Orlando Airport

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ORLANDO – One of the most common complaints about SunRail is where it doesn’t go: the Orange County Convention Center, Disney World, and Orlando International Airport.

Now that the S-Bahn line has pledged to extend to DeLand, officials are looking to the next step and have Florida’s busiest airport – which handles around 66,000 passengers a day – in their sights. The Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission has approved an agreement to work with Brightline, a private passenger rail company, to link Meadow Woods Station in Orlando with the airport.

SunRail officials have previously investigated how to develop an airport incentive. This time around, they’ll be looking to do so with Brightline, which operates a bullet train between Miami and West Palm Beach and is now connecting with Orlando to travel west to Tampa in the years to come.

At a Rail Commission meeting Thursday, Michael Cegelis, Brightline’s Executive Vice President, Rail Infrastructure, described the benefits of connecting to SunRail.

“It opens up new and expanding job markets,” said Cegelis. “It is an opportunity for those who have a small universe of opportunity because there is no transit available to them.”

Around 18,000 people work at OIA, said Cegelis.

Some of these people are Volusia County residents who may prefer to take the train 50 miles from Deltona.

Other benefits include improving the value of real estate near train stations, reducing traffic and carbon emissions, and enabling a car-free lifestyle.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer was among five railroad inspectors who voted unanimously in support of the study but alluded to ticket prices for the two train operators.

SunRail operates local trains from Poinciana to DeBary, including this stop at Lynx Station in downtown Orlando.  The system is working to extend the line north to DeLand by 2024.

“We need to make sure we are considering the fee structure for SunRail operations versus Brightline operations,” said Dyer.

SunRail tickets start at $ 2. The base fee for Brightline between Miami and West Palm Beach starts at $ 17.

Other projects by Brightline

Brightline is almost halfway through construction of its West Palm Beach to Orlando line, Cegelis said. It is expected to be completed in 2022, with passenger service launching in 2023.

The company has private-public partnerships in Miami where other modes of transport are or will be connected to Brightline trains, said Katie Mitzner, public affairs manager.

Orlando International Airport's intermodal terminal will host the Brightline trains once the company completes its West Palm Beach expansion.  Brightline and SunRail have agreed to jointly explore ways to connect the two rail lines in the coming years.

As Brightline expands into Orlando, the company has also signed an agreement to investigate a connection to Disney Springs and is building additional South Florida stations in Aventura and Boca Raton.

The company is in the early stages of planning its Orlando to Tampa leg, where it will arrive at a station on the west side of Ybor City.

The SunRail transition date has been postponed

With the Railways Commission’s approval Thursday of the Florida Department of Transportation’s plan to reduce the north extension to DeLand, the inevitable result of delays in the start of that project came. The transition date, when full operational control will be handed over by the state to the five local partners, including Volusia County, will be delayed at least until this station opens, probably in 2024.

Jared Perdue, FDOT’s Secretary for District 5, announced this at the Railroad Commission meeting.

A SunRail northbound train arrives at Lynx Station in downtown Orlando on Thursday, February 4, 2021.  Volusia County officials learned the state will opt for a scaled-down version of DeLand's expansion that will cost about $ 30 million less.

When SunRail was first built in 2014, the contract stipulated that the state-to-local handover would take place after seven years or later that year. But the deal also promised that DeLand would have his station until 2016.

Delays in raising federal funding for the DeLand expansion have pushed this project back.

Volusia district manager George Recktenwald said the transition date, brought forward by at least three years, will reduce the district’s funding. As soon as the partners take over operational control, their share of the operating costs also increases.

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Janet Smith