There are 30 commuter rail systems in the United States, and in 2022, 266 million passengers used the service.
And nearly 10 years after it launched, thousands of Central Florida residents are now turning to commuter rail to beat traffic gridlock on the roadways.
Jahimael Hance is one of them. “I do this every day, Monday through Friday, morning and afternoon,” he said as he walked toward SunRail’s Kissimmee, Florida, station platform.
Hance uses the railway to travel the 41 miles from his home in St. Cloud, Florida, to his school in the city of Maitland.
“It was my first decision,” he said. “How am I going to get there if I don’t have a car, and it’s a far route?”
Hance boards the train at 6:50 a.m. and he gets off at 7:45 a.m., where he boards a bus to take him the rest of the way to school.
SunRail travels 49 miles on a north-south route through Central Florida with 16 stations along the way. According to the latest numbers, an average of 4,000 people use the train each day, which removes 3,200 vehicles from the roads.
SunRail is not solving everyone’s commuting problems, however. Others responding to our Solutionaries survey said SunRail needs to go more places.
“Without a leg that connects to the airport (80 million visitors) and Brightline (Miami) we are building a bigger car, but forgetting to put the tires on it,” Jeff wrote.
“There’s a need for an East/West line,” Robert wrote. “Maybe from UCF to downtown, and then beyond Winter Garden. Also needs expanded hours of operation and weekend service.”
Lisa said people need help getting to and from the train.
“The last mile,” she wrote. “We have not helped people get to and from the train. Our communities with SunRail stops need to widen the sidewalks and turn them into multi-use paths, so people feel more comfortable using bicycles to get to and from the train.”
For some riders, though, that is not a problem.
SunRail has resulted in small communities popping up right along the tracks near some stations.
“For me, if I lived here, and I was working downtown, I would probably live here and work downtown,” Tom Kreuger said. “I don’t know if I want to stay downtown.”
Kreuger is the city of Longwood’s director of economic development. He said since SunRail roared into the city, more than 2,000 apartments, 150 townhomes and more than 200 single-family homes have been built in this small community that spans 5.6 square miles. He said the population growth has also boosted the average income for the city – more than its previous economic projections.
“You’re going to see restaurants, you’re going to see availability – being able to have some choices of where to eat. We’re excited about it, and it really started with (the train station) being put in place,” he said.
Cindi Lane, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation, which as of right now, operates SunRail, said it’s called Transit Oriented Development.
“In downtown Orlando, we are seeing a lot of excitement about a new project that’s coming called The Edge. It’s right at the Church Street Station,” she said. “It will be 32 stories of office space, residential and a hotel. It’s right there at the station, so that’s going to be really exciting.”
She said more development is in the works on the north side of the route.
“In DeBary, a recent project has been announced called Main Street. It’s going to be on 19-and-a-half acres right next to the station, and it’s also going to be a huge complex with about 80 residential units, including apartments and townhouses,” Lane said. “In addition to that, there will be some retail and some office space.”
Lane said SunRail ridership is on its way back up after the pandemic kept a lot of its riders at home.
It’s still struggling to get back to the daily average of 7,000 riders in 2020.
In May, community leaders gathered in DeLand to break ground on SunRail’s newest train station.
“This new station will bring even more economic opportunities to downtown DeLand and the surrounding communities,” SunRail CEO John Tyler said.
There are also plans to expand SunRail to the east over the next few years, answering calls to take people to Orlando International Airport.
Some plans have SunRail possibly joining with another rail system to take people all the way to Tampa. The project is called The Sunshine Corridor.
SunRail is currently in the midst of a transition process, which is designed to transfer control of the railway from the Florida Department of Transportation to a coalition group made up of local counties and the city of Orlando.
Many said they are hopeful that getting the local governments more involved in the rail system will result in more options and more opportunities for commuters who want a solution to traffic congestion.
This article is part of “Solutionaries,” our continuing commitment to solutions journalism, highlighting the creative people in communities working to make the world a better place, one solution at a time. Find out what you can do to help at SolutionariesNetwork.com.