A transportation consultant cautioned the Central Florida Expressway Authority board members on Thursday against using future toll revenues to prop up SunRail as the federal subsidy for that system goes away.
The commuter train is owned and operated by the state Department of Transportation, but FDOT intends to turn over SunRail to five local governments on April 30, 2021.
CFX hired the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) last year as it was updating its 2040 Master Plan to provide guidance for how the agency could become a regional partner in multimodal transportation efforts.
CUTR Executive Director Stephen Reich told board members that CFX could face legal challenges if the tolling agency invests in transit projects that don't directly benefit the toll payers. The agency's bond rating could be jeopardized, as well.
That doesn't mean the agency shouldn't consider partnering on transit projects that could reduce congestion on toll roads, such as building parking decks at SunRail stations, or providing transit corridors within the toll road right-of-way.
"The MultiModal Financier Partnership model is the appropriate position for CFX at this time in Central Florida's regional transportation development," Reich wrote in his final report. "To assume any role in ownership of and or operations of fixed guideway transit system is, in the authors' opinion, not prudent at the present time."
The CFX 2040 Plan calls for multimodal corridors on S.R. 408 and S.R. 528 to allow for either express bus routes or Bus Rapid Transit. Future toll roads, such as the Osceola Parkway Extension, include a 50-foot transit corridor along the two-mile extension that would serve the future Sunbridge community.
Reich said an emphasis should be placed on multimodal projects that would improve transit availability at the region's college campuses. But Seminole County Commissioner Brenda Cary questioned why he also didn't recommend improving connectivity to major employment centers.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs echoed those concerns, even though Orange County had traditionally opposed using toll revenues for transit projects.
"We have a lot of students who live at home, the tolls they pay to commute to class are not insignificant," she said. "It comes on the back of a lot of kids going to school and on the back of a lot of workers. I have always felt that if we can serve the same customers and give them options, that's a great use of this toll revenue."
Jacobs cited Medical City as a prime example of a major employment center that would benefit from a transit option, particularly because so many of the people who work there "are not doctors and cannot afford to live" in that community.
Reich said the board should evaluate future multimodal projects based on two criteria, whether it directly benefits toll road users or benefits the region and is revenue neutral. He said the express bus service on the S.R. 417 Beltway and future light rail from International Drive to the airport are candidates for consideration. Both are included in MetroPlan Orlando's Long Range Transportation Plan.
CFX Executive Director Laura Kelly said her staff would develop a structured policy based on Reich's recommendation to add to the master plan.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said it's critical that the board base its decisions on the region's long-term needs.
"Some of the decisions we make lock us into a path for decades," he said. "I like that fact that we're being thoughtful here in what is our role, but we also need to be agile and flexible."