The idea of encouraging the extension of the Orlando-area SunRail commuter rail service into Polk County that trumpeted in recent press reports is far from a done deal.
The 22-member Polk County Transportation Planning Organization has endorsed the idea of the Florida Department of Transportation and its consultants to continue studying the idea.
But a five-member bloc on the panel consisting of the Polk County Commission made it clear during Tuesday’s meeting that they are not on board with anything beyond the study phase.
The people conducting the study made some attractive claims about the benefits of the SunRail extension at October’s TPO meeting.
It would eliminate millions of commuter trips that now clogged highways, it would eliminate thousands of tons of greenhouse gases and it would potentially support economic development around future stations, consultants estimated, based on a limited polling sample and very preliminary data.
Right now the nearest SunRail stop is just off U.S, 17-92 in Poinciana.
Commissioners focused on the costs.
It would cost $23 million a mile to extend the line and the operating costs are estimated at $12 million a year.
That could divert money from other projects in the county’s transportation budget, commissioners complained.
They acknowledged there could initially be state or federal subsidies, but noted that pot of money eventually runs out and local government will be stuck with the tab.
Commissioners also wondered whether Polk had the urban density to make commuter rail attractive.
Although the consultant report mentioned seven potential stations in Polk, the fine print indicated the number would probably be fewer and there’s the issue of locating suitable sites for stations.
Lakeland is the only place along the Polk route that still has an active railroad station.
The preliminary study said station sites would have to meet all kinds of connectivity criteria for pedestrians and bicyclists and transit to qualify for funding.
However, as a practical matter the stations would also probably have to have adequate parking for commuters who choose to drive to the stations because that is the only practical way for them to get there.
This discussion will continue over the next several years and will include public meetings.