Winter Park votes to pay share of SunRail as Maitland says no

The bill for the commuter train is finally coming due and Winter Park commissioners unanimously agreed the mass transit system is worth the cost

June 26, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Local cities and counties tried to avoid this day — the day the state would finally demand they start picking up the growing tab for the $65 million SunRail commuter train that runs from Poinciana to (soon) DeLand.

But now — after exhausting deadline extensions from the state, which paid for the train for its first decade, and voters’ rejection of a county sales tax increase for transportation — the bill is coming due.

The Winter Park City Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously to pay its $350,000 per year share starting in January, though the county is seeking even more money.

“I think we’re in a good spot,” said Commissioner Craig Russell. “SunRail has been good to us. It’s money well spent.”

Winter Park has the good fortune of its SunRail station that lets riders off in Central Park, just steps from a number of businesses, restaurants, Rollins College and City Hall. As a result, the city’s station is consistently one of the busiest along the 49-mile system.

Just to the north along U.S. 17-92, neighboring Maitland’s station is one of the emptiest. And its City Council took the opposite action on Monday, voting unanimously to opt out its agreement to pay about $280,000 a year for SunRail.

“I don’t relish this discussion of having to contemplate removing ourselves,” said Council member Lindsay Hall Harrison, noting she believes in the value of a robust public transit system. “… Unfortunately, our station is the least used .. as a resident and someone who has to listen to our tax base, we’re at a crossroads.”

The vote came as city officials explained they were required to give the county 180 days notice ahead of January if they planned to opt out of the inter-local agreement in place since 2011.

The council then took two additional votes to propose a deal to the county that would allow Maitland to essentially suspend its opt-out vote and get back into SunRail if the city could come to terms with the county and find a funding source before January.

City Manager Mark Reggentin told council members that the discussions with county officials have been collegial, but the city’s share is likely to increase to $700,000.

“This is just a little too hard of a dollar amount to ask citizens for,” said Maitland Council Member Vance Guthrie.

The system has struggled in generate ridership over time. The number of riders through Winter Park fell after the system opened in 2014 before peaking in 2019 at nearly 129,000, according to SunRail statistics. The pandemic led to another drop that bottomed out at 54,257 at the Winter Park station in 2022.

From June 2023 to this month, Winter Park’s station rebounded to about 105,000 riders, second only to the main Lynx Station in downtown Orlando.

Maitland, on the other hand, tallied the fewest riders last year with just under 30,000, the statistics show.

It’s unclear how Maitland’s actions could affect the system and and the station in Winter Park, where officials hope an eventual link to the airport and theme parks could bring even more of a boon to ridership.

“The real issue is a link to the airport,” said Winter Park Commissioner Todd Weaver. “I have friends and family in Europe and they say, ‘I’ll just take train’ and I’m embarrassed to say no you can’t.”

He suggested that local officials consider revising how the Tourism Development Tax (a levy paid by hotel customers) is used to allow for expenditures on mass transit rather than “to advertise Visit Orlando,” the region’s tourism marketing agency.

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