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SunRail takes on its first riders

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CENTRAL FLORIDA - Commuter train traffic has arrived in Central Florida.

After years of debate and political squabbling, the region gets its first light-rail, mass transit system when SunRail began taking its first riders on Wednesday. Political figures from around the state were some of its first official passengers.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs were among the first to board SunRail.

"This launch of SunRail marks a historic milestone in the history of transportation in Central Florida.  This first phase of commuter rail service will bring our region together, provide cost-effective public transportation and launch a new era of economic opportunity for our citizens," said Congressman John Mica. "Not since Interstate 4's construction has a transportation project like SunRail more dramatically impacted our region. This first phase of commuter rail service will launch Central Florida into a new era of economic development, while creating a 21st century solution to transporting citizens, not only around our community but in the future, across our state."

Transportation officials are banking on enough people riding the train to help pay it off.

They said they need 4,300 boards per day to break even on the project, which cost more than $1 billion to put on the track. The state will help pay to maintain the train.

The cost for construction on SunRail’s first two phases is $615 million.

“It’s 50 percent by the federal government, 25 percent by the state and then 25 percent by the local partners,” said Steve Olson of the Department of Transportation.

In addition to the cost for the SunRail trains, platforms, and service, the state put up $432 million for the tracks, pushing the total to more than $1 billion.

The Florida Deparetment of Transportation will pay $137 million over the next seven years to maintain the lines, and after that, it will be up to local governments to keep the trains running.

Riders from the general public begin using the train Thursday, which runs from DeBary to Sand Lake Road in Orange County.           

"Well, this is a chance to thank the partners who have helped make this happen. Along the way, there was a lot of state local federal and commercial involvement in this," Olson said. “We firmly believe this is going to change the way transportation occurs here in Central Florida.”

Officials acknowledge that it will easily be the region's largest mass transportation experiment when riders begin using the first 32-mile phase of the $1.2 billion project aimed at easing traffic on Interstate 4 and securing the area's long-term economic health.

"This is history right here, and for those of us who have been working in the project sometime, you're just checking stuff off the list as you go along and 10:53 you've gotta take this in, and say you know this is a pretty big deal this is more than checking off a list to happen," Olson said.

Riders will be able to use it free for the first two weeks. Organizers also say about 15,000 people have already bought pre-sold tickets for when paying service begins.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.