July 19--U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood turned loose almost $78 million in federal tax money to help build the much-contested SunRail commuter train during a sun-baked ceremony Monday near one of the system's future depots.
LaHood signed a symbolic document before a crowd of more than 300 people. But the stroke of the pen that counted occurred in an air-conditioned tent a few moments later.
That opened the way for the first 31 miles of the $1.2 billion train to be up and running by May 2014.
"When you get your act together, unbelievable things can happen. ... And look what's happening: SunRail is coming," LaHood said.
His comments were greeted with applause from a crowd that had gathered near the railroad tracks and just north of the stop that will serve Florida Hospital Orlando.
The event ends decades of fruitless efforts in Central Florida to build and operate a rail-based transit system. Previously, there were unsuccessful attempts to build a light-rail system linking downtown Orlando with International Drive, and a magnetically levitated train running between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World.
"These are the days we live for," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who leads a panel of local governments that eventually will own and operate SunRail.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who helped secure the federal money for SunRail, said he had worked with three presidents, three governors and six secretaries of the state and federal departments of transportation to get a commuter train for Central Florida.
"The question now is who will get the next leg? The question of building it is over," said Mica, chairman of the House transportation committee.
Notably absent Monday was Gov. Rick Scott, who approved SunRail on July 1 after putting it on hold for six months. Scott told the Orlando Sentinel in a previous interview that he was worried the train would not attract enough riders, but he did not have the legal ability to scuttle it.
Asked about Monday's festivities, he said, "I have plenty of other things to do."
SunRail has been loudly opposed by members of the conservative tea party, many of whom form Scott's key constituency. They contend the train will carry few passengers and cost millions annually in construction overruns and operating subsidies.
Only one protester showed up Monday. James Fraleigh, a 52-year-old day laborer from Casselberry, held a homemade sign saying, "Have A Brain No Train."
Supporters say the project will generate 8,000 construction jobs, plus more than 245,000 jobs over 30 years, from development expected to occur around the stations. Critics say the job estimates are vastly overblown.
But Lars Houmann, president and chief executive officer of Florida Hospital, said a massive development called the health village springing up on the campus of the facility near College Park "would be substantially compromised" without the train.
He also announced that a 90,000-square-foot statewide corporate headquarters for Florida Hospital would be built on the same campus.
Peter Rogoff, the top administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, and Anath Prasad, the secretary of Florida's DOT, signed four copies of a 20-page document ensuring that $179 million in federal taxes would be spent on the first phase of SunRail, which will run from DeBary to Sand Lake Road, about 31 miles.
Included in that money was nearly $78 million that will go toward construction spending in 2012-13. The state already has about $101 million in federal dollars on hand.
Another $129 million from LaHood's office is supposed to be approved in time for phase two. The second part, set to open in 2016, will stretch from DeLand in the north to Poinciana in the south.
Once Prasad finished signing, he took a $5 bill from his wallet and gave it to Rogoff, who smiled and put it in his wallet. Prasad jokingly called the money a down payment.