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Officials sign off on new plan to transfer ownership of SunRail from FDOT to local governments

ORLANDO, Fla. — A group of local leaders signed off on a new plan that brings an ownership transfer of SunRail -- the closest it’s been in nearly a decade.

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For years, local leaders on the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission Governing Board have been working with the state to transition ownership of SunRail from the Florida Department of Transportation to local governments.

That board approved a plan Thursday that sets out a framework for how that will finally happen.

Read: SunRail to hold public meetings on proposed Sunshine Corridor

The board adopted a two-phased approach.

Phase 1 includes transferring financial obligations from FDOT to these local governments: Volusia, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, and the city of Orlando.

That checklist includes setting up a bank account, hiring an attorney and finalizing interlocal agreements.

Read: Osceola County to consider $300M project for land near SunRail station

Phase 2 would include transitioning the daily operations of SunRail to an operating entity.

Right now, Lynx is the first choice, but a contract needs to be finalized first.

Phase 2 is expected to be completed three years after Phase 1 is complete.

According to FDOT, while it does have a timeline, a firm deadline has not been set for completing Phase 1.

Read: Officials break ground on new SunRail station; see where

“We don’t have a hard fixed deadline. It is something that we need to negotiate, but we’re looking forward to be able to transition as soon as possible,” said FDOT District 5 Secretary John Tyler.

According to Tyler, the hope is that Phase 1 could be complete by the end of 2024.

That means that sometime in December 2024, local governments could be picking up the tab for a $45 million operating deficit currently covered by FDOT.

That cost was a big topic of discussion at a Seminole County Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday.

Read: Why Brightline/SunRail Sunshine Corridor will cost over $2B

“I’d like to understand how that dollar fee has grown,” said Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dallari, who also sits on the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission Governing Board.

“Many of our residents were not happy with the original contract. Now, here we are many years later with five or six times the money we anticipated to pay,” added Seminole County Commissioner Jay Zembower.

According to FDOT, original projections from 15 years ago said the total cost to local governments would be about $8 million. But rising operating costs and increased federal regulation have pushed that total up.

Read: Sunrail airport expansion promises big payoff – with a big price tag

“I think we can all understand the price of just about everything has gone up dramatically in the last decade. So, the costs are certainly higher than what was anticipated over 15 years ago,” Tyler said.

For years, cost has delayed a transition. But on Thursday, several members of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission board acknowledged it was time to get serious before signing off on the new plan.

“I think FDOT has been more than generous in agreeing to operate this,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. " I hope we are more expeditious in meeting deadlines.”

Read: Central Florida counties prepare for multimillion-dollar SunRail takeover

Negotiations are ongoing between the counties and FDOT on how to split that $45 million cost.

FDOT has said they do have an obligation to local government partners and to the federal government to keep the trains running.

According to Tyler, the “backstop measure” to cover cost is dipping into an area’s five-year work program.

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