Saturday, May 10, 2014

SunRail -- Is it Really the Answer to Orlando's Mass Transit Issues?

(Note to readers: This entry will deviate from the norm. I am not writing about health issues or promoting a fundraiser. I am using this blog as an opportunity to express my opinion about a major issue in Orlando -- the new SunRail system. It's a new me .. opening up about issues and concerns that may impact upon many of us. It's been a long time since I've done any op-ed type writing. I am both excited and terrified. But here's to an exciting moment in my life and moving forward.)

First, I need to explain that when I moved to the Orlando area in 1988, I honestly thought there would be an "explosion" of changes in the region. There were huge developments being built throughout Seminole County, the area I had chosen to live in. While the road closest to my home (Red Bug Lake Road) was undergoing renovations at that time (and still is) I believed (as did others) that a form of mass transit was not far behind. After all, I had grown up in Philadelphia, PA and had used buses, trains and trolleys all my life. I simply assumed (a terrible notion) that buses would follow all the road work. My area could connect with the bigger intersection of 436 with a bus and then, I could get to other places in my county and throughout the region. It hasn't happened; I'm still waiting.

There is no infrastructure to the system that the region established and while buses (or perhaps better stated -- a bus) does run along 436, I cannot get to it. Thus, the new SunRail is not accessible to me. The nearest station in Altamonte Springs is approximately 13 miles from my home. I do like to walk but quite honestly, that's way beyond my current ability. Plus, it could downright dangerous in certain areas to try and walk. Keep in mind that my son, Brian, did walk hundreds of miles while living here because he used the transportation system -- he rode the buses and was often left stranded for hours without a bus or found himself in the "middle of no where" because the buses were not running or were not available.  He has since moved to Washington, D.C. where the mass transit system really works. Anyway, back to Orlando -- the new SunRail looks pretty and runs rather quietly along its route from Debary (Volusia County) to Sand Lake Road (Orlando).  But, there are a number of issues that may keep SunRail from being the "best new kid on the block."

Yes! It's better than nothing. I have heard those words from many who have taken advantage of the "free rides" being offered at this time. For many "train travelers" it has been an experience. I saw wide-eyed children with hands over their ears as SunRail pulled into the station become giddy with excitement. After all, this was there very first train ride and their parents were also thrilled to provide this experience. However, again, some of the excitement was "derailed" by the long delays between trains. Due to mass overcrowding at the stations along the way (they underestimated the number of people who would come out for this free ride) trains were extremely overcrowded and sometimes could not even stop to pick up more passengers. Delays of an hour plus have been common. Now, let's remember that this is the "trial period" and not everyone taking to the trains will actually be a real rider on a regular basis. But, for those who intend to become regular commuters, this has not been the best of circumstances. If they need to count on SunRail to get them to work on time, then these delays need to be fixed -- ASAP.

Now, onto a much bigger and more frightening concern. Safety. I boarded the SunRail on a Friday evening.  The schedule indicated it was due into the station at 6:23 p.m. Edward and I waited for the train -- it arrived around 7 p.m. We boarded and he wanted to go onto the upper level. That was impossible since people were standing everywhere including the stairway. But here's the bigger challenge -- where could I stand safely? SunRail was built for riders who will be seated. There are very few places where commuters can hold on safely. While the train rides very smoothly and that was a good thing (considering my past history with falls) I kept telling Ed that we needed to find a place where I could hold onto something and feel like I would not be compromised. We made our way through the crowds and I finally found the area where passengers with disabilities can sit or where travelers with bikes can lock up their gear -- that was the only location with a poll I could hold onto. I grabbed on and the train took off. During this time all I could I think of was what would happen if there was an accident. My heart raced a bit harder as I looked around for more options. This beautiful, brand new train offered little in the way of making me feel safe. I enjoyed the fact that the ride was smooth (thank goodness) but my premonition did come true just this past week when a SunRail train hit a landscaping trailer just past the Longwood station. And yes, people were standing on the train at the time. Fortunately, reports did not indicate any injuries (although that may change) and the engineer was able to slow down the train prior to impact which, most likely, did make for a safer situation -- with time, this could prove very dangerous. How could they build a commuter train without any thought of passengers who would be standing and should have access to an overhead area where they can hold onto or polls that can easily be reached even by younger riders? Also, don't even get me started about issues involving disabled passengers in wheelchairs or with walkers. We have already seen the photos in the papers of major problems at stations. Again -- our safety is supposed to be a number one priority.

My anger is directed at the Governor of Florida and the legislators who made the financial decisions for SunRail. Because they chose to cut costs, we now have a system that is "doomed" for potential failure even before it really even starts. We have a train that only runs Monday through Friday. (Last time I checked there are two others days in the week.) It runs from 5:30 a.m. until approximately 10 p.m. (I got off at Church Street Station and the last train out is at 9:25 p.m.) There is already talk of how SunRail intends to pay for cabs or buses if a commuter is unable to get to a train on time, such as if they need to work OT or have another work-related issue that keeps them from getting to the station on time for the ride home. That does not take into consideration anyone who would like to take the train for an evening of theater or other entertainment in downtown Orlando or near Loch Haven Park. The Orlando International Fringe Festival begins soon. This could be a golden opportunity for SunRail, but of course, it will not be available for potential riders because of its hours and the fact that it does not run on weekends. Seriously? How could they have missed out on this tremendous chance to prove just how great SunRail could be? Plus, if you know anything about cabs in Orlando -- let's just say that with the program as it is (which allows for four rides per year per person) this would amount to many more dollars than the actual train ride itself. Bottom line: More mistakes that were made in the planning stages and now we pay the real price for the errors.

SunRail has potential. I have to believe that because I want Orlando to have a mass transit system. But, until the leaders and those with access to our tax dollars begin making wiser decisions, we are at their mercy. Plus, future expansion is critical. We need to be able to access all of Central Florida. My daughter now lives in Davenport, Polk County. Adrienne asked me if SunRail was near her. Unfortunately, it is not and I'm not sure if they even have plans to implement any system in her area. Also keep in mind that the hours the train does run makes it difficult for me to really utilize it even if I can get to a station. I may be able to get to a location, but getting home in a reasonable time frame may proven challenging.

I am not getting into the cost of riding the train because for now, that issue is not as relevant to me as is the safety issues I mentioned and the hours the system runs. Without better hours, SunRail will not be accessible to many potential riders. And, without a real mass transportation infrastructure (where we have buses that connect our communities to the train) again -- how is it expected to really work right?

I have heard others say what I was thinking as well. We should have let the Disney corporation take over the mass transit system of Orlando years ago. Or at the very least, our leaders should have listened to their advice. We could have had an incredible system of monorails and real futuristic transportation running throughout the region. But, instead, we have this quiet, great looking train that, for now, has many flaws. And, some of the flaws are not even with the train itself.

Yes! I hope SunRail survives. And thrives. And yet, I have many doubts about the future of Orlando's mass transit system because I have lived here for 25 1/2 years and very little has changed. There is still no bus running along Red Bug Lake Road. I have used LYNX (the buses connecting Orlando) once in all those years. My "joy ride" on SunRail may be the one and only -- unless things really truly change.