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May 24 big day for rail

Isaac Babcock

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The future of the SunRail system's role in Winter Park could be decided at a meeting Monday, called to debate changes to an agreement with Orange County concerning funding for the commuter rail system.

The city could possibly drop out of the system and cancel construction of a commuter rail stop if it can't convince the county to find other funding sources rather than forcing cities to pay for it.

Winter Park would pay about $350,000 yearly to keep its portion of the system running after federal funding for the system ends. The city is in an unusual position along the SunRail line, being in the only county that's making individual cities pay their share of costs for the system, rather than Orange County paying outright.

Despite misgivings about the economics involved in the rail deal, no one on the five-member Commission has called to back out of the SunRail system.

Standing atop the railroad tracks at a National Train Day celebration on May 7 near Central Park, Mayor Ken Bradley expressed support for the system.

"I'm looking forward to having SunRail in Winter Park," he said.

In April, Bradley had called for the Commission to vote specifically on whether it wants a SunRail station at all.

City Attorney Larry Brown in March analyzed the city's agreement with the county, which was made early on in the debate over funding the SunRail system, and determined that the city could be trapped into a contract for 99 years with the county.

Some key words in the agreement may have proven tricky down the line, he later told the Commission.

Ten pages of analysis determined that if the city were to enter into the contract as written, it could be stuck helping to fund the commuter rail system against its will even if the Florida Department of Transportation didn't procure a full funding source.

"In my opinion, this language provides that a dedicated funding source need not cover 100 percent of the operating costs or bond debt service cost," Brown wrote in his recommendations to the Commission. "Nor must the dedicated funding source exist throughout the 99 year term of the Agreement."

He also said that the agreement could leave the city open to a larger hit for accident liability than may have been apparent.

Brown concluded that the city had the right to terminate or modify the agreement with the county. In recent weeks, some commissioners have restarted a push for just that.

"We need to take a serious look at this agreement," Commissioner Beth Dillaha said. "If we don't change this, we could be on the hook for a long time."