Frederick W. Smith, founder and CEO of Federal Express once said, “I don’t think that we understood our real goal when we first started. We thought that we were selling the transportation of goods; in fact, we were selling peace of mind. When we finally figured that out, we pursued our goal with a vengeance.”
For several decades, a corps of highly-skilled, strategically-focused and passionately dedicated individuals from the public and private sector have been pursuing a similar goal with equal “vengeance.” Their dream was not just to bring a revolutionary solution to the needs of Central Florida commuters, but to help build world class communities where commerce, education, lifestyle and culture are seamlessly facilitated by a transportation network that provides “peace of mind” through stress-free, convenient, economical and environmentally sensitive options. From that vision, SunRail was born.
To many, the idea of catching a sleek, modern commuter train, where one can slide into a comfortable seat and have a work surface available with power outlets and wireless Internet to answer email, play a video game or help a child on a homework assignment, while traveling to or from work, was a dream. Add to that amenities such as restroom facilities, luggage and bicycle racks, capacity for about 150 seated passengers per car on double-decker trains, and one might wonder if you were pulling into the Magic Kingdom instead of Winter Park or Longwood.
But by the spring of 2014, that dream will become a reality and with it other dreams as well, as businesses large and small migrate towards new urban centers.
The Entrepreneurial Opportunity
John Brown comes from a family where entrepreneurialism is in their genes. He recalled, “When I moved to Orlando in 1983, my father opened a 30,000 sq. ft. nightclub called JJ Whispers, and soon after, we opened and operated several successful sports bars in Orlando.”
But for the last twenty years, Brown concentrated on building his very successful The Lighting Design Center, which specializes in new and retrofit energy efficient lighting for projects across the U.S., Canada and Central and South America. But with the downtown renaissance and the advent of SunRail, Brown now sees abundant opportunity to indulge his first love.
“When I left the hospitality business I always missed it,” said Brown. “I am also a foodie, so this project feeds one of my passions.”
That project will be called The Church Street Tavern, which Brown describes as having “a classic tavern feel and style of food, with an emphasis on a sandwich made famous in Pittsburgh.” Located a short distance from the SunRail station at Church Street, Brown’s tavern will not only provide a wayside stop for travelers, but works well with his desire to also attract Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates and Penguins fans.
“With all the exciting movement I see at Church Street Station, along with what is happening with SunRail, at the Amway Center, and Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, I feel Downtown is poised to really shine in the upcoming years.”
Downtown Orlando isn’t the only community embracing change. In the next 50 years, the population of Central Florida is expected to double and, in the next 15 years, tourist visits are projected to rise 77 percent. With the cost of gas continuing its upward climb, a monthly SunRail pass (as low as $57) costs less than a tank of gas. And for seniors and those under 18 it is even a better value, with half-price discounts.
Also, SunRail is expected to move as many people as one lane of Interstate 4 during peak travel times (about 2,000 cars per hour) at a cost that is less than building a single lane of I-4. The estimated cost for 20 miles along I-4 is $2.8 billion or $140 million per mile, versus building 61.5 miles of SunRail at $1.05 billion, or $17 million per mile.
The SunRail stations – there will be 12 in the first phase – reflect the design sensibilities and architectural uniqueness of various communities, from the Mission Revival style of the Orlando Health/Amtrak station to the ultra-modern Florida Hospital Health Village station. Each one beckons travelers to enjoy the character and amenities that these communities offer, or to simply welcome them home.
With exception of the five urban destination stops, the stations will have free parking features to facilitate a park-n-ride commuter culture. Along with federal, corporate and individual tax incentives for mass transit alternatives, the option becomes more viable on every level.
SunRail trains will operate every 30 minutes during peak morning hours from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Monday thru Friday and during afternoon rush hours from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and at two-hour intervals during non-peak hours. As passenger demand grows, the system is designed to increase service levels to every 15 minutes during peak periods and every hour during off-peak periods. Initially, SunRail will not run on weekends, except for special events throughout the year.
Transit Oriented Development
TOD is not a trendy new phenomenon; it was the reason Rome was built on the Tiber, London sprang up on the Thames, and Russian Czar Peter the Great built, then moved, his imperial capital to St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea – waterways and seaports were the arteries of commerce. What moves civilization forward is what moves people and goods in the most efficient ways; in other words, civilization and transportation move together.
In modern urban development, the difference between chaotic, dehumanizing sprawl and community centers, where culture and economies thrive, is always linked to the availability of user-friendly transportation. Knowing these obvious and unavoidable trends, the words of Larry Adams of ACi Architecture seem almost prophetic: “We must not plan just to transport people from Point A to Point B, but rather integrate a transportation system into our community on multiple levels in ways that improve our lives, our economy and our environment.” By creating walkable, mixed-use communities around these destinations, more people will choose to leave their cars at home and take transit or walk to work, recreation and residences.
Some examples of TOD locations along the SunRail route include:
Longwood: The city’s website describes the SunRail station as the “centerpiece and catalyst of planned redevelopment efforts in the City’s traditional downtown area. The SunRail station is located within the City’s Transit Village District and is in walking distance of the Historic District.
For those looking to escape the density of downtown Orlando, for an evening or as a lifestyle, where oak covered canopies and quaint shops and restaurants provide a different style and pace, Longwood may soon emerge as one of those destinations. It could be described as “rural renewal.”
Two catalytic developers, Kevin Kroll and Ryan von Weller of Orange Crown Holdings, are building a $23 million residential/commercial structure next to the station, which will be across from the city’s historic center at Church Avenue and Ronald Reagan Blvd. It will have retail space on the ground floor and apartments above. Managing partner Ryan von Weller said the company hopes to have both projects completed by the time SunRail begins service.
Health Village: Florida Hospital’s Health Village will be on the SunRail line and the hospital has plans to make mass transportation even more attractive for its employees. As a down payment on the future, the hospital has invested $3.9 million to build a SunRail stop in the heart of the Health Village.
At a cost of $300 million, the Health Village will turn 115 acres between Orange Avenue and Lake Estelle into a futuristic medical community, where medical staff can live and work in comfort, with nearby shopping, mass transit and housing. The project could establish a standard for planned communities in the U.S., where sprawl has increased the nation’s dependence on the automobile and reduced opportunities for healthy walking.
“Commuter rail will take cars off the road, which will reduce traffic for us and our neighbors,” commented Jody Barry, administrative director of facilities development for the hospital. Barry added that many hospital employees will likely be commuter rail riders coming from northern bedroom communities, such as Deltona, Sanford and Lake Mary.
Lars Houmann, president and CEO of Florida Hospital, said, “Our entire region has developed a new approach to its growth and development over the next 50 years. That approach is organized around development closely integrated with transportation corridors and clusters, departing from the sprawl that has driven Florida’s growth until now . . . SunRail is vital to that vision of growth and diversification of the economy.”
Creative Village: Craig Ustler is often described as “Mr. Downtown,” but he is a far cry from the persona that is sometimes associated with successful urban developers. Ustler, principal of Ustler Development Inc., was quoted as saying, “You get into certain businesses (in his case development) because you realize there are things your neighborhood doesn’t have.”
Ulster’s vision is the redevelopment of the former Amway Arena property into the planned $1 billion Creative Village, a 68-acre mixed-use, transit-oriented, urban infill neighborhood in the center of downtown Orlando – and directly served by SunRail’s LYNX Central Station stop. The village draws inspiration and impetus from the burgeoning digital and simulation industry, which has already found a voice in UCF’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy where students learn about video-game design.
The Creative Village concept focuses on designing a true “live, learn, work, and play” urban destination through a development plan that supports what they described as “a synergistic and dynamic mix of uses including office/creative studios, higher education, K-12 education, mixed-income residential, retail/commercial, and hotel.” Vertical development should begin in 2013 and 2014. “It’s not pie in the sky,” Ustler commented a few years back. “We told the mayor this: ‘I’ll be here forever, and my family will be here forever. I’ll make this my life’s work.’”
Tupperware: Tupperware Brands, with its headquarters just inside Osceola County, will get a stop with the second phase of SunRail development, which extends the reach of SunRail from Deland to Poinciana. The company is donating property to the Florida Department of Transportation for the Osceola Parkway SunRail Station, and plans to prepare about 100 buildable acres near its headquarters for a TOD next to the station. Tupperware, which has about 300 employees, is planning apartments, shops and offices on property surrounding the stop. Officials there also are considering a bike stand to encourage workers to ride the three-quarters of a mile from the depot to the office.
“We feel good about developing our property that way,” Tom Roehlk, the company’s Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer, was quoted as saying. Explaining the company’s rationale, he continued, “We’re in competition with everybody else to attract employees. Someone who has the opportunity to move to another city might weigh the points of attraction of those cities versus ours. Commuter rail is a point of attraction.”
“Transit-oriented development outperforms non-transit projects countrywide,” Trevor Hall, of Colliers International in Orlando, observed. “It creates better rents, retention and occupancy. That’s why folks are so interested in investing and might pay more for that next piece.”
Winter Park: Some SunRail destinations, like Winter Park, aren’t seeing dynamic vertical development directly around the station. Why? As Patrick Chapin, the president of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce commented, “What people are hoping to create adjacent to SunRail stations, we already have, because our city was laid out as a TOD, around the railroad, when it was chartered in 1887. Our past, and what we have now, is other areas’ potential future.”
Though SunRail may seem a revolutionary step, it is actually a part of an evolutionary process in Central Florida’s transportation development. Links running east and west – connecting to Orlando International Airport and the Medical City Complex in Lake Nona, along with convention and tourist venues – is a logical progression, which the Florida Department of Transportation and local governments are already considering. The vision is to facilitate, for all of Central Florida, a lifestyle of work, shopping, education and recreation
that all leads to quality of life and “peace of mind.”
“SunRail Safety: Be Smart. Be Safe”
SunRail’s aggressive safety campaign builds upon Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide public rail safety program emphasizing three components: education, engineering and enforcement.
SunRail utilizes existing tracks. During high commute periods there will be more trains traveling with greater frequency however, the SunRail trains are quieter than typical freight and Amtrak trains.
- Avoid distractions near the tracks
- Cross only at designated areas
- Don’t walk on the tracks
- Always yield to trains
And remember – train tracks are private property. Crossing at unmarked areas or walking on the tracks is trespassing and a criminal offense. Trains can’t stop quickly. But you can.
SunRail and Technology
SunRail.com offers a unique “Transit Savings Calculator” that allows commuters to do a cost comparison between driving their automobile to work and taking SunRail.
- Each SunRail station will have automated ticket machines that work much like an ATM to dispense daily and monthly passes. Stored Value Passes can also be purchased, which work much like automobile SunPass transponders. At each station there are fixed readers that allow riders to simply tap their card on the screen to get on the train and do the same when leaving; it is a Tap On, Tap Off technology.
- SunRail will have train tracking apps for mobile devices, to sync your schedule with train arrivals and departures.
- Also, all SunRail trains offer Wi-Fi, with train tracking and trip planner apps available. In addition, SunRail offers numerous advertising opportunities to business.