The Daytona Beach News Journal, Mark Harper
It didn’t take long for Sandy Ward to adapt.
Ward has driven to downtown Orlando from her Deltona home for much of the last 30 years, but now she uses SunRail, checking email and reading.
“It really is nice,” she said. “I think I have a lot less stress, honestly.”
But Central Florida as a whole has yet to fully embrace commuter rail. A federal-government projection that 4,300 riders would tap on and tap off the train daily in its first year proved high. With paid ridership a key revenue-generating source for the 20-month-old system, SunRail officials have embarked on a new marketing effort to convince more people like Ward to make the switch.
The marketing campaign has involved putting rider-submitted selfies on billboards along some of the most congested parts of Interstate 4, to get the attention of commuters stuck in traffic, and giving away Star Wars Pez dispensers on the release date of “The Force Awakens.”
SunRail officials have also been meeting one-on-one and in groups with downtown Orlando CEOs of large employers to help sell companies on offering SunCard fares as employment benefits.
Some of these meetings have resulted in “Try the Train” days, where employers and SunRail give workers a chance to get on a train, see how it feels, learn how to buy a SunCard and load it with fares — the nuts and bolts of rail commuting.
“If we can make a fun day of it,” said SunRail consultant Carson Chandler, “it can be transformational.”
The early returns show it’s working somewhat. The three fall months, September, October and November, showed a 7-percent ridership increase over the same time in 2014. But even the best month, November, fell some 700 riders shy of that 4,300 mark.
Ridership is important because it generates revenue. Operating SunRail in its first year cost $34.4 million. Ridership only accounted for $2.1 million. The train had other revenue sources, such as advertising totaling another $5 million, but that left the state to pick up the rest of the $27 million.
And the state of Florida is not scheduled to cover those costs starting in 2021. That burden falls on the five local partners — including Volusia County.
County officials haven’t said much about ridership concerns. They are planning to meet with Noranne Downs, the Florida Department of Transportation’s District 5 secretary, sometime soon, county spokesman Dave Byron said.
“We would agree that the ridership on SunRail is not as good as it could be. And why that is or what to do about it … just opens a lot of questions,” Byron said.
Chandler and other SunRail officials say a car-culture region, such as Central Florida, takes years, not months, to embrace public transportation.
But they are confident that the more potential riders are exposed to the train, the better the chances will be of capturing them.
Mark Schrieker, who recently moved from Las Vegas to work as a heavy equipment operator on the I-4 widening project in Orlando, took a trip on SunRail on a recent day off to assess whether it might be a viable alternative for him. Exiting at the DeBary station, he said it was just his second time ever riding a train, and he liked it.
“It is opening up a whole other world,” he said. “I don’t have to live in an urban setting. I can live in a more rural place and take the train.”
He said he would consider moving to Volusia and using the train. But he also said SunRail needs to reach other destinations, such as Daytona Beach, in order to really boost ridership.
Ward, the Deltona commuter, had never used public transportation until SunRail’s arrival in May 2014. But she’s the perfect candidate: A paralegal, she works for a downtown law firm, mainly eight hours in the office.
“I’ve been riding since it started. I’m very happy. To count on I-4 is very unreliable,” Ward said. “You can leave every morning at 7 o’clock and it really should take you 40 minutes to get to downtown Orlando. But an hour isn’t enough.”
And with the massive, $2.3 billion I-4 overhaul underway, traffic is only expected to worsen.
That’s part of the message SunRail officials are delivering to downtown employers.
“You need especially in the early stages to develop your outreach and to get to employers … paying for expensive parking spots downtown to say (SunRail) may be an alternative,” said Steve Olson, a SunRail spokesman. “If your employees are late arriving for work, SunRail is more dependable sometimes than the surface streets.”
One of the employers that has bit on the message is FBC Mortgage, which has about 150 downtown workers that it encourages to use the train when possible, said Stephanie Simmons, marketing director.
Actually, FBC does more than encourage train use. It offers to pay for workers’ monthly SunCard rather than providing a parking space in its building, which is one block from the Church Street station.
About a dozen employees have taken FBC up on the offer and have become train commuters.
“The people who ride it love it,” Simmons said. “It kind of makes them more efficient. They get here earlier and are spending an hour at work, not on I-4. … And they’re not as stressed, not having to worry about fighting that gridlock.”
FBC hosted an event last summer where employees could meet with SunRail officials and get their questions answered. One of the biggest concerns: What if I ride the train and there’s an emergency?
The Florida Department of Transportation program reThink helps point commuters to alternative modes, and will even provide reimbursements such as cab fare to those who sign up for the Emergency Ride Home program.
Chandler, whose firm Align Public Strategies consults for SunRail, said part of Orlando’s vision for diversifying its economy is expanding its transportation modes to appeal to millennials, the generation of workers that embraces alternatives to the car culture, such as Uber service.
“Ownership of things is not nearly as important to people who are 20 to 30 years old. … SunRail is an important part of that business development effort,” Chandler said.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who has participated in the meetings with employers, also said expansion of the train line to DeLand and the Orlando International Airport will be critical to building ridership.
“It is positive that month over month, every month for the second year, ridership has grown,” Dyer said. “We are making efforts. However, the question now is should we have expanded hours and service, both geographically and weekends and times of day. That’s where some of the focus is.”