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SunRail is considering expanding hours, days

SunRail leaders agreed Monday to consider expanding the hours of the commuter train to weekends and later at night, but they want to know how expensive the new and improved version might be before making any promises.

"There are more costs. The question is how do you fund it," said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who is chairwoman of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission, which oversees SunRail.

Jacobs was reacting to an online petition drive started a week ago by SunRail advocate David Porter. He has gathered nearly 1,700 signatures to make SunRail a seven-day-a-week operation.

Porter said the decision of the five-member panel to explore the concept was a start.

"I didn't expect them to resolve it, but they are talking," he said.

SunRail has been carrying fare-paying customers since mid-May. The train has averaged just under 4,300 riders, the number it had expected to reach by the end of its first year.

"This is the surest sign of success," Jacobs said, "when the No. 1 complaint is 'How do we get more service?' "

No one is sure how to pay for more SunRail service, which now is funded with a combination of state and federal tax dollars. Even with the limited schedule, the projected deficit for the first seven years is about $50 million.

Right now, it costs an estimated $2,500 for a locomotive with two cars to run the entire 31.5 mile route from DeBary in Volusia County through downtown Orlando to Sand Lake Road in south Orange County. Five train sets typically make 32 trips during each weekday, excluding holidays.

Expansion would add not only operating costs, but could call for the purchase of more locomotives and cars.

SunRail project director Tawny Olore said train staffers could devise a cost estimate for the expansion by the end of August. Then local government agencies would have to figure out a way to pay for it all. That discussion could take months.

Two possible ways to pay, board members said, would be a $2 daily surcharge on rental cars — which has been strongly opposed by rental car companies and state legislators — and placing a premium on the $2 base one-way fare now in place for SunRail.

In other developments, Olore said staff members have started the long process of seeking federal money to eventually link SunRail to Orlando International Airport. Early estimates say the link could be completed within five years at a cost of about $100 million.

SunRail officials believe they can use a rail spur owned by the Orlando Utilities Commission that runs along the south edge of the airport property before turning north to OUC's power plant. It could be extended to the airport, where a $213 million depot is supposed to be built for a privately financed train that would link Orlando International with South Florida.

dltracy@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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