A long-awaited, highly anticipated decision on building a commuter rail system to serve four central Florida counties in the greater Orlando area got a thumbs-up Friday from Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said he expects the first phase of the $1.3 billion project to be completed in early 2014. Scott, who did not attend Friday's announcement, gave his approval following a two-hour meeting with Prasad on Wednesday.
"This project is going to be sort of a judgment-day kind of project," Prasad said. "If we cannot make SunRail successful, probably there will be no more trains in the state of Florida. No more commuter trains. We have to make this train, SunRail, successful."
A recalcitrant Scott froze $235 million in contracts shortly after taking office in January, concerned about the feasibility and costs of the SunRail project that will connect downtown Orlando with Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties. SunRail will eventually serve 17 stations along a 61-mile line where trains will initially run every half-hour during peak hours and every two hours during off-peak times.
Scott was out of town and not immediately available to comment on his decision.
The Republican governor's approval on the SunRail project was anything but a sure thing. Earlier this year he rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa, angering even some central Florida lawmakers from his own party.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced two months ago that they were ready to proceed with a multi-year funding agreement with Florida to build SunRail. Federal funds will cover half the deal. The state's share of the costs was expected to be $432 million to purchase 61.5 miles of track from CSX and another $66 million for operating subsidies.
Prasad said he personally committed to oversee the project with an eye to controlling cost overruns.
The proposal has long had the backing of a majority of the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature as well as former Govs. Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush and it is a priority for U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park.
Opponents, led by Tea Party activists, claimed the commuter rail was a boondoggle whose operation costs would never justify the paltry ridership predicted in car-loving Orlando. Forecasts projected 2,500 people a day would initially use the line.
One of the project's longstanding critics, state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, blistered Scott for a decision which she described as "overwhelmingly disappointing" to approve "a sacred cow of special interests."