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SunRail Showdown Expected at Six Hearings Today

ACI's Rendering of The Longwood Sunrail Stop
ACI's Rendering of The Longwood Sunrail Stop

June 28, 2011 | WMFE - Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad is barreling through Central Florida today, holding six public meetings in cities along the route of the proposed SunRail commuter train. Governor Rick Scott is expected to decide by Friday whether to approve the project. Communities along the rail line are holding their breath, hoping the project will revive their struggling economies, and they've already invested money to back up those hopes.

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On a blisteringly hot summer day in Longwood in Seminole County, the humidity does not dampen developer Ryan Von Weller’s enthusiasm for SunRail. 

“I’ve been so excited and so disappointed so many times,” he says, “I’m truly excited about this, not only for my own business purposes, but I think it’s going to be a paradigm shift for the people of Orlando.”

Von Weller’s company, Orange Crown Holdings, has already placed a big bet that SunRail will come to Longwood.  He and his partners spent about $3 million to buy four acres of land right next to the site where Longwood’s station would be built. 

Right now, the site is just a grassy field with an old auto garage in it.  The city’s public works facility is only a few yards away.  If and when SunRail comes through, the public works station will move, and Von Weller will build a four-story mixed-use apartment building, with residences on top and offices and shops on the bottom.  

Von Weller hopes the project will fit in with Longwood’s nearby historic district and attract people who work at South Seminole Hospital, about half a mile away.

Longwood Mayor Joe Durso thinks SunRail represents a new economic future for the town.

“We’re talking about creating nearly 10,000 new jobs in the city of Longwood,” he says, “which represents 70% of our overall population.”

Durso says he made the case for SunRail to Governor Rick Scott in person, but he is still not sure what the governor will do.

“I’ve heard … he’s going to approve it today, I’ve heard that he’s just trying to find a way to kill it.  I don’t put much stock in rumors,” Durso says.  “It’s actions that count and we’re hoping he approves [SunRail].”

So far Longwood has spent about $1 million on SunRail-related projects, including station design plans and getting ready to move the public works facility.   Other counties and cities are also spending big money.  Orange County has sunk nearly $4 million into expenses related to SunRail. 

Longwood Mayor Joe Durso says his city’s investment will not be wasted even if the Governor kills the project.

“A lot of our planning efforts have been dedicated to the area in general, not just the train station,” Durso says.  “It wouldn’t be completely down the drain, but it certainly would be a setback to the money we’ve spent.”

SunRail opponents think the train is not the solution for Longwood or for other struggling local economies.  They worry the commuter line will not be able to pay for itself and that the state will be left holding the bag.

“We think some of the projections that were used to justify the project were ambitious and maybe overly optimistic,” says Clyde Fabretti of the West Orlando Tea Party.

Fabretti and his Tea Party colleagues will be protesting outside some of today's meetings between Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad and local leaders along the planned SunRail route.

State numbers obtained by WMFE show cities and counties along the 61-mile SunRail line will have to spend nearly $7.5 million a year by 2021 to keep the train operating.

Federal contributions are expected to cover $2 million of that, and riders are expected to generate $3 million in revenue.  That leaves a roughly $2 million deficit that will need to be covered.

Secretary Prasad will likely tell local leaders today that the state has no plans to help bridge that gap.




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