Local businesses deserve a big share of the credit for keeping SunRail alive and pushing for Gov. Rick Scott's approval of the commuter train.
Now, those businesses will be even more critical in determining whether the train is the boon for the local economy that many expect or the boondoggle critics anticipate.
It's business leaders, not politicians, who will have the power to encourage people to ride SunRail through ridership incentive programs, development that makes using the train convenient and shuttle systems that make it easy for riders to reach their final destinations.
"Now that this is approved the hard work starts," said Rich Morrison, regional vice president for Florida Hospital, which made the largest commitment to the project, pledging $3.5 million to build a rail stop at its downtown hospital.
Florida Hospital's pledge and others from Walt Disney World, Tupperware Brands Corp. and CSX were key elements in Scott's decision.
Morrison said the hospital plans to convene local businesses along Lake Ivanhoe, the Orlando Science Center and museums at Loch Haven Park and even businesses along College Park's Edgewater Drive to try to figure out ways to boost ridership.
"We think there could be a very cooperative effort made of really looking at how we can leverage this stop," Morrison said. "Over the next year and a half, we've got to focus on those things and have those things in place the first day the train runs."
With SunRail expected to start rolling in early 2014 that leaves about two years to work out a long list of details.
Florida Hospital is also exploring ways to make the stops — which will eventually stretch along Interstate 4 fromDeLand south toPoinciana — work for its hospitals in Altamonte Springs and Winter Park, though those stops won't be located on the hospital's property like the one at the main campus.
Alex Martins, president of the Orlando Magic, said he'll be working to make sure SunRail operates before and after games, even if that means the Magic subsidize tickets for its patrons. Much of the discussion about SunRail's schedule has centered on typical business hours, but the Magic want the train to operate later to accommodate post-game traffic.
"We want to have [train] cars ready and waiting to take patrons out," Martins said. "We will be willing to subsidize a portion."
That kind of support is likely going to be important in establishing SunRail as a practical alternative to driving for suburbanites, who consider their cars as critical to life in Central Florida as air-conditioning.
And developments on the drawing board like Ryan von Weller's Orange Crown proposal will be essential to making that happen.
The plan for 200 apartments mixed with offices and retail space next to the train stop in Longwood could become a model for other suburban stops.
Though his financing isn't yet in place, von Weller said he believes the details will fall into place for the $20 million project now that it's "out of purgatory" with the governor's approval.
Walt Disney World, the region's largest employer, has also committed to partially subsidize bus service throughout Central Florida to its property to make the train more appealing to its 62,000 workers.
And Tupperware, which owns about 500 acres near the SunRail route agreed to donate 10 acres for a stop near Osceola Parkway as well as provide a shuttle system that will encourage its employees to take the train. The company hopes the train makes that land more valuable and will increase developer interest in buying the property.
"We're hopeful the influence of SunRail will allow us to get going again and generate a kind of buzz in the development world, but time will tell," said Tom Roehlk, Tupperware's general counsel.
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