VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. — Volusia County Chairman Ed Kelley on Thursday withdrew a nearly $20 million pledge to help pay for a long-planned DeBary-to-DeLand extension of SunRail. He also offered to withdraw the county as a voting member of a Central Florida agency overseeing the commuter-rail system.
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Volusia County’s move comes a month after Kelley publicly reaffirmed, with reservations, a $19 million pledge as a member of Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission for the extension.
That offer was made under a last-minute proposal to salvage the 12-mile extension, estimated to cost $80 million to $100 million, by tapping unspent federal funds earmarked for highway projects in other states.
The plan called for reclassifying those funds for transit projects such as SunRail.
But Kelley said SunRail could only identify about $34 million in federal funds. That means the rest would have to come from the state or the county, Kelley said, adding that the cost didn’t justify the potential SunRail ridership numbers to DeLand.
“It really doesn’t make financial sense,” Kelley told Spectrum News 13 on Thursday. “We said it doesn’t really justify the spending and we could use any money that we have from DOT a lot better ways than spending it there.”
He said the total cost to extend SunRail from DeBary to DeLand was estimated at $80 million four years ago. Now it is closer to $100 million.
Kelley questioned spending so much on a route once projected to generate 200 riders per weekday.
The project would require building a second track and constructing a bridge in Orange City.
Kelley said he and County Manager George Recktenwald have talked extensively about the situation and agreed they would be willing to have Volusia County removed as a voting member of SunRail’s governing board.
The other members of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission are Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dallari, and Osceola County Vice Chairwoman Viviana Janer.
Kelley said SunRail staffers are working a proposal expected for commission review in October that would eliminate Volusia County’s vote and spell out any remaining, scaled-back responsibilities.
“We would be responsible for the DeBary station, which currently exists. We would take care of the expense of maintaining that facility and that would be the limit to our expenses going forward,’’ Kelley added.
Volusia County’s scaled-back vision for SunRail is dramatically different than the regionally cooperative one hammered years ago to provide Interstate 4 motorists a much-needed alternative to the chronically congested highway.
Once a staunch SunRail supporter, Volusia County wavered as anti-tax voters reshaped the county council over the years.
"It is important that we have certainty as we move forward," Dyer said in a statement to Spectrum News 13. "Volusia had been wavering for a number of years, and now we have a better understanding for the transition from (the Department of Transportation) to the local governments."
At one point, Volusia politicians wanted to extend DeBary to Daytona Beach, but that proposal went nowhere and faced an uphill challenge, including the lack of existing tracks between the two cities.
SunRail runs on train tracks built by CSX years ago, one of the project’s original cost-saving selling points.
A critical setback happened in 2015 when a hoped-for $35 million grant from the federal government for the DeBary-to-DeLand link fell through.
More recently, some Volusia County politicians complained they were being held financially responsible for 13.2 miles of SunRail in Volusia County when only 1.2 miles — the from the St. Johns River to DeBary — actually existed.
The original plan for SunRail called for a 60-mile corridor between Poinciana and DeLand. The commuter rail system’s first phase opened more than five years ago, connecting DeBary to south Orange County.
The southern extension to Poinciana opened in July 2018.
SunRail currently runs 40 train trips per day, Monday through Friday, with stops at 16 stations.
Volusia County’s step-back is not just a problem for the construction vision. It also potentially complicates the anticipated transition of SunRail as an entity run by the Florida Department of Transportation to an organization managed entirely by the local governments.
FDOT is scheduled to hand the system over to Central Florida governments on May 1, 2021. That is when local governments will be responsible for all operation and maintenance costs for SunRail.