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New commuter rail link ready to roll in central Florida

| Sunday, April 13, 2014, 6:57 p.m.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Central Florida is scheduled to start a commuter rail system on May 1 along a major interstate corridor that runs through downtown Orlando, becoming the first system to open in the United States in three years.

SunRail will extend 61 miles at a cost of $1 billion by the time a second phase is completed in 2016.

The commuter rail system will open during a time of rising public transit ridership. The American Public Transportation Association in March reported a record 10.7 billion trips taken nationally in 2013, fed, in part, by investments in transit by states and cities to attract new businesses and workers.

SunRail will run in a generally north-south direction through the eastern side of central Florida with downtown Orlando near the midpoint. The train bypasses the city's major theme parks.

Stops include several suburbs, two large Orlando hospitals and medical complexes and the Amway Arena, the home of the NBA's Orlando Magic.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said one goal for SunRail was to change growth patterns in central Florida away from suburban sprawl toward more walkable urban environments increasingly popular today.

Since SunRail was funded, nearly $1.7 billion in development, including 4,500 residential units, has been completed or is under construction within a 10-minute walk of a commuter station, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

“We're competing for the bright, talented, young people and entrepreneurs with places like Austin and San Francisco to bring that talent to Orlando,” Dyer said. “They expect public transit.”

The wider vision is for SunRail to tie into an extensive public transit network linking Orlando and Miami by an inter-city higher-speed rail.

If the project succeeds, “then you've expanded the effective commuter shed that someone could live in Miami and work in Orlando or vice versa,” said David Levinson, urban systems researcher and civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota.

“It happens in Europe all the time, and it happens in the Northeast Corridor all the time.”

SunRail is the 10th commuter rail system completed in the United States since 2000, and follows the 2011 opening of the 21-mile “A Train” in Denton, Texas, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Other systems since the turn of the century were built in Austin, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Nashville, Albuquerque, Seattle, Portland, Maine, and Portland, Ore.

Despite President Obama's attempt to jump-start high-speed rail construction across the country with $8 billion in his 2009 economic stimulus package, no European or Japanese-style train has been constructed, Levinson said.

Projects in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio were canceled by Republican governors who criticized the federal government for wasteful spending. Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott cited the risk of cost overruns being absorbed by the state.

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