FOX 35 INVESTIGATES: The Cost of SunRail

SunRail board members have approved a study to look at developing a rail service between the Orlando International Airport and SunRail's Meadowood Station, in partnership with Brightline. SunRail needs partnerships like these to prevent sinking deeper into debt, some analysts say.

Fewer than 1,000 people ride on SunRail a day, on average. The commuter train runs up a huge deficit at taxpayer's expense, to the tune of almost $50 million a year.

Since its launch in 2014, SunRail has run on weekdays-only to keep operating costs down. The line connects DeBary in Volusia County to Poinciana in Osceola County, with 16 stops.

Pre-pandemic ridership stood at about 1.4 million every year, an average of 5,609 daily trips. During the worst of the pandemic, average daily riders dropped to 973.

SunRail's annual budget is roughly $66.5 million. However, it only expects to bring in roughly $16.8 million this year. That leaves taxpayers picking up the difference: all $49.7 million.

"Everything that is not fares being paid by passengers or advertisement -- and I think they have a limited budget for that --  everything above that is subsidized by either federal, state, or local funding," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Dyer, who also sits on the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission Board said the deficit isn’t a surprise to the people who oversee SunRail.

"Because we anticipate that they’re going to operate in a deficit," Mayor Dyer explained.  "There’s no public transportation that I know of that makes a profit."

SunRail was never expected to make money or break even. Tickets start at $2 one way and range up to $5, depending on how far someone is traveling. To make a profit, SunRail would have to increase fares to $25 or 30 dollars a ride, Dyer added.

Economic policy group The Hamilton Project studied 1,800 mass transit systems around the United State and found that 98% operate on a deficit.  Among those, not one metro rail system, like SunRail, makes a profit.

"There’s a whole bunch of reasons for the value of public transit, beginning with those that can’t afford to get around in a different fashion," Mayor Dyer explained. "Even if you’ve never set foot on SunRail, it’s a benefit to you and your community, because you’ve taken whoever is riding on SunRail off of I-4."

The Florida Department of Transportation could not provide FOX 35 News with any data to substantiate that claim. However, in a statement, an FDOT spokesperson essentially said every SunRail rider is a car off Central Florida roadways.  

Another benefit of SunRail, according to FDOT, is economic development spurred around SunRail stations. FDOT reports $1.8 billion in new construction has taken place around SunRail stations, including new housing, commercial projects, and retail.

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Projects like the Weston Park Apartments that are trackside in Longwood or the Station House Apartments at the steps of the Lake Mary Station.

Orlando resident William McKnight has only ridden a few times but said the system needs to be expanded.

"When you go to New York, the subways are full, trains are full.  You go to D.C., same thing -- the buses and trains are full, they all connect."

That’s the issue leaders are trying to fix.  

SunRail is just one component of a long-term transportation network that Dyer said will be necessary to meet the needs of a rapidly growing region.

"What we have as the SunRail system now is just the beginning," he added. "We always envisioned this as a first phase. That would eventually get to the airport, maybe expand from the airport east to UCF, or out west to the tourist attractions." 

Tune in to FOX 35 Orlando for the latest news.