SunRail holds grand opening today, passenger service starts Thursday

By Caroline Rowland and Margaret Kavanagh, Team Coverage
Last Updated: Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:45 PM EDT
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SunRail is here.

After years of planning, you can ride the SunRail on Thursday morning.

SunRail's 32-mile track will run from DeBary, in Volusia County, south to Sand Lake Road, in Orlando. There will be 10 stops in between.

A grand opening celebration took place Wednesday -- celebrating the long-awaited new commuter rail system.

The opening was a long time in the making.

It took years of debate and political hurdles. But finally, Central Florida will have its first commuter rail.

Many of those people who helped bring it here were among the first to ride it, too.

It was back in 2007 when SunRail finally got the green light to begin construction. Seven years later, people like Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who fought  hard to get it, are now counting on its success.

"We are on the verge of the most exciting year in the history of Orlando, and I'm proud to be here today," Dyer said.

The excitement could be seen all along the track as the grand opening tour started in DeBary and made 11 stops along the way.

"When I went to a meeting, the question was always, 'Do we really need SunRail?' Dyer said. "There were naysayers about whether we should build it, and I haven't heard that question in years now." 

The question Dyer does get, however, is when will the SunRail expand to late night and weekend service -- or link up to Orlando International Airport -- which could also have rail service someday to South Florida?

The cost of the SunRail is already over $1 billion.

Fifty percent came from a federal grant, 25 percent came from the state and the final 25 percent came from counties and cities.

But right now, the focus is on tomorrow and getting people on the train.

"Our concern is to get this out of the gate, get passengers to their destination Monday through Friday," said Steve Olson, of the Florida Department of Transportation.

This is just Phase 1 of the SunRail. A planned Phase 2 could add another 31 miles -- running from Deltona all the way south to Poinciana, in Osceola County.

Officials are hoping to have that finished by 2016.

FDOT hopes at least 12,000 people will ride the train on the first day Thursday. SunRail is FREE for all passengers May 1–16 to help potential riders get to know the newest and fastest way to get around Central Florida.


Onboard the SunRail train ...

Elected officials got a first glimpse of SunRail on Wednesday.

Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine said it was an "amazing feeling" to experience the historical grand opening.

Constantine promised his family friend that she would be one of the first people to ride the train when the bill for it was signed in 2009.

Today, he made good on that promise.

"I think it's cool that I get to be one of the first people to ride the train," said Angelina LaBelle.

Wednesday's event was for media and elected officials, but SunRail leaders are anticipating more than 4,300 people to board trains every day.

They said there will be no official way to track the number of riders on Thursday because tickets aren't being sold.

The main goal is to get commuters off of I-4 and onto the trains.

"It is Wi-Fi friendly, it's light and friendly," Volusia County Council member Patricia Northey said. "The chairs are comfortable, the tables to work on. Why would anyone want to get into their car?"

"This is going to be such an economic and transportation opportunity for Central Florida," Constantine said. "I just can't wait to see all the implications and how wonderful it's going to be."