ORLANDO, Fla. (FOX 35 ORLANDO) - SunRail is celebrating its fifth anniversary. The service launched on May 1, 2014.
The train, operated by the Florida Department of Transportation, is also celebrating record ridership, but it may face some challenges soon and taxpayers may have a say in its future. Despite a few years of declining ridership, this last year has been the train’s strongest year yet, according to numbers provided by SunRail.
In the five years since, SunRail has expanded its operating area and service hours. SunRail began as a 32-mile system with 12 stations in three counties, making 34 trips per day. Last summer, SunRail expanded southward, growing the system to 49 miles and 16 stations in four counties. Additionally, SunRail has increased its service schedule to 40 trips per day.
With the additional service area, SunRail has transported more than a million riders since last July. Ridership has increased 82 percent since its southern expansion to Kissimmee.
Over one million riders have jumped onboard in the 2019 fiscal year, and there are still three months left.
“Last month we had the biggest ridership in the history, so it continues to grow and prosper,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.
Much of the increase in ridership totals are thanks to that southern expansion into Southern Orange County and Osceola County, adding four stops, and so far, more than 230,000 riders. Regardless of the expansion, ridership is up across the system. SunRail reports an increase of 21,171 riders -- not including the Southern expansion.
“Sunrail has proven itself to be successful, but also, it’s the start of a system,” said Mayor Dyer.
Riders taking the train on Wednesday said they love anything that helps them avoid Interstate 4.
“I-4 can get crazy at times, so this is a better way,” said Jalen Bradford, SunRail rider.
“No I-4, you sit and play with your phone, no brakes, no gas petal, no bumper to bumper traffic, no changing of lanes, the greatest ride in the world,” said John Irving, SunRail rider.
“We started as something that was a novelty and we’ve really turned it into a necessity,” said Nicola Liquori, SunRail CEO.
But the rail system will soon face a hurdle, when the State of Florida transfers the operation over to local governments.
“That seven year operating period ends in May of 2021, and at that time, because it is a regional system, more of a local system, it will transfer from the state operating it, to the locals operating it,” said Liquori.
That means taxpayers will have to figure out how to fund it and soon.
“That’s going to be a community discussion over the next year or so, looking toward maybe putting something on the ballot in 2020,” said Mayor Dyer.
That funding will determine future expansion of the system, the hours the train runs, and if the train will run on weekends again.
SunRail recently added a service and maintenance facility in Osceola County to make train operations more efficient, FDOT said. According to transportation agency, 95 percent of riders surveyed report they are satisfied with SunRail service.