New rail gives Florida economic edge

At the Florida Chamber of Commerce, we are leading efforts to make wise investments in the long-term economic well-being of our state. The new SunRail commuter rail system is an example of economic development through regional collaboration and public-private partnership. Without question, mass transit has challenges, but we stayed the course and, as a result, Florida is winning.

With nearly 20 million residents, Florida will soon surpass New York to become the third largest state in America. Under Governor Rick Scott’s leadership, Florida has created nearly 600,000 private-sector jobs and welcomed a record-breaking 94.7 million tourists to Florida in 2013. By 2030, six million more residents will call Florida home. Florida is literally on the move.

Central Florida, part of a mega-region which includes Tampa Bay, is striving to compete globally and grow smarter. Regional leaders, like Jacob Stuart at the Central Florida Partnership, are paying attention to lessons learned from the growth of Atlanta, Dallas, Salt Lake City and others.

Central Florida’s SunRail will do more than simply improve transportation. The area’s inaugural rail transit project – spanning four counties and 61.5 miles – promises to change the region’s economic landscape.

Already, SunRail has spawned nearly $1.7 billion worth of new and planned development within a 10 minute walk of SunRail’s 17 stations. These projects represent an impressive 17,000 construction and permanent jobs for the region. And that’s before SunRail even picked up its first passenger.

This kind of private-sector investment immediately adjacent to SunRail stations is staggering. But it didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly didn’t happen by accident.

While planning SunRail, Florida’s Department of Transportation worked closely with the Florida Chamber and regional leaders to ensure that it would actually enhance the economic vitality of surrounding areas. Equally important to the development of the project was the state’s strong recognition of the importance of a vibrant freight rail network serving Central Florida. SunRail operates on one rail line through Central Florida, yet goods can still move to and from the region via rail on a separate, upgraded line. This balanced attention to the needs of passengers and freight ensures that Florida’s growing logistics industry will continue to thrive. The public-private partnership also ensures that passenger trains will not displace freight trains, a scenario that would be counterproductive to alleviating highway congestion.

Florida’s holistic approach to transportation planning ensured SunRail had the backing of a broad-based coalition of public officials and private business leaders. As the project developed and stations began to take shape, so, too, did a groundswell of grassroots support for what commuter rail could offer the region – an efficient transportation solution to perennially congested I-4, which runs through the middle of Orlando. An astonishing 12,000 tickets were pre-sold to excited consumers.

Crescent Communities recently broke ground on its first Central Florida project, a multi-use transit-oriented development planned for downtown Orlando, on a lot that has languished for nearly two decades. SunRail was the catalyst.

Similar developments are under construction in suburban Lake Mary, or nearing construction in Longwood. Orange County has adopted a Station Area Concept Plan for its Sand Lake Road station in an underdeveloped, industrial area. Florida Hospital has made a multi-million dollar investment to expand its flagship campus on the north end of Orlando.

SunRail provides a desperately needed transportation alternative for workforce commuters while maintaining Florida’s position as a global trade hub. Because of SunRail, Central Florida will forever change – for the better. Yet an even greater legacy is the collaboration it took to make it happen. The same win-win cooperation between public and private partners that made SunRail a reality will help us move forward and achieve other goals.

That’s a competitive edge that Florida will take.