SunRail commuter trains won't start running through the Orlando area for at least another year, but already some Seminole County officials envision extending the system to Orlando Sanford International Airport.
That would mean a traveler could someday board a northbound SunRail train in downtown Orlando, switch trains in Sanford and head to the airport to catch a flight.
"This is something that is very doable," said Seminole County Commission Chairman Bob Dallari.
The potential link between the main north-south SunRail line and the airport is an 11-mile spur. The spur, currently used by freight trains, runs from the Sanford SunRail station now under construction to the airport and then to Winter Springs.
But several things would have to happen before trains could go to the airport, and turning the idea into a reality could take years, if not decades.
The state Department of Transportation would have to buy the spur from CSX. In 2007, when the state purchased from CSX more than 61 miles of tracks from DeLand to Poinciana for SunRail, the contract also gave DOT a 30-year option to buy the spur for $10. The 4-mile portion of track between Sanford and the airport also would have to be upgraded to handle passenger trains.
"Once you own it, you have to maintain it, and that's where you're talking about a considerable amount of money," said Steve Olson, a DOT spokesman. "If you run passenger service on those tracks, it has to meet standards, and those are standards that are higher than for freight trains."
So far there are no cost estimates, and any decision to extend the line would also depend on the success of SunRail and how many passengers would be willing to take a train to the airport, Seminole officials say. Lynx used to run buses to the Sanford airport, but the service was canceled several years ago for lack of riders.
The $1.2 billion SunRail train system is set to start running in May 2014. The first 31-mile segment will run from DeBary to south Orange County. The second phase is scheduled to open in 2016 and add DeLand to the north and Poinciana in Osceola County to the south.
Larry Dale, president and chief executive officer of Orlando Sanford International Airport, said a train would help draw air passengers and become an important component of the region's growing transportation network.
"It's something that we've got to get the powers that be to make happen," Dale said. "It has to be a coordinated effort by the county and the state."
The Sanford airport served about 1.8 million passengers in 2012. It largely accommodates charter flights and Allegiant Air, a low-cost carrier that flies to more than three dozen cities from Sanford. By comparison, Orlando International Airport handled more than 35 million passengers last year and has more than 40 airlines.
OIA does not have a train connection, but buses are expected to transport passengers between the airport and the SunRail station near Sand Lake Road and Orange Avenue. In addition, All Aboard Florida, a Coral Gables company, wants to build a train linking South Florida to the Orlando airport within three years.
Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett said a train to Orlando Sanford International would be a boon not only for Sanford but for the region as a whole by giving tourists another transportation option.
"And I think that would really boost ridership for SunRail but also help in taking cars off the road," Triplett said. "The airport already has a huge rental-car business."
In coming months, Seminole County and Sanford plan to launch a study of development around the SunRail station. The study could look at the feasibility of train service to the airport, including the cost to upgrade the tracks for commuter trains and the number of passengers needed to make it work, county officials said.
"It has the potential to offer economic-development opportunities for the community, so it certainly bears a second look," said Nicole Guillet, Seminole's director of growth management.
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