Winter Park pursues Saturday SunRail Service

Passengers board a northbound SunRail train in Winter Park Tuesday. The rail system has proven more popular on the weekend.

Passengers board a northbound SunRail train in Winter Park Tuesday. The rail system has proven more popular on the weekend.

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SunRail service on Saturdays is the expectation, but has that train run off the tracks?

Winter Park took another cautious step on Monday toward supporting Saturday SunRail service in the wake of past disappointments, voting to contribute $15,000 in Community Redevelopment Agency money to assist SunRail in funding its service on Saturdays.

In September the Community Redevelopment Agency Board approved the contribution of $20,000 to SunRail’s Get on Board initiative to fund Saturday service starting in November. Another $5,000 was contributed by the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce and the Park Avenue Merchants Association as well.

But that CRA money was never paid because of unmet expectations. The CRA Board had an understanding at the time

that service would be offered every Saturday from late October through January, with

the total $25,000 from the CRA, merchants and the Chamber helping to cover the cost. But operations began on Nov. 5, followed

by trains running on only seven Saturdays of an available 13 through the end of January. That starting date was pushed back because of Hurricane Matthew, which hit during the weekend that service was scheduled to accompany the Winter Park Autumn Art Festival.

Team SunRail representative Caroline Gardner assured the CRA Board on Monday that SunRail plans on offering service

on Saturday, March 18 for the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. She requested that the

board make the contribution they had initially promised back in September to fund future Saturdays as well.

But board members were hesitant to give the full amount promised.

“First of all, lessons learned,” City Commissioner and CRA Board Member Carolyn Cooper said. “We need to have a written understanding of what we are agreeing to and what the consequences are if it doesn’t happen. We do all want it to be successful. On the other hand, we want to be able to advertise

it with confidence that it’s actually going to happen.”

Orange County Representative and CRA Board Member Hal George said they should instead opt for a lower contribution to SunRail.

“I do have a bit of an issue with the $20,000,” he said. “As stewards of the CRA money, I believe that’s not the right message that we’re sending by giving the entire amount.”

Winter Park Chamber of Commerce President Betsy Gardner Eckbert said she was in support of a prorated contribution, but added that many merchants aren’t thrilled with the lack of promised SunRail service. The Chamber and the Merchants Association had held off on their $5,000 contribution as well.

“My concern in the future really does speak to that predictability and to training your audience,” she said. “I know that there are going to merchants that are disappointed to hear that their PAMA funds were submitted at all to this.”

“I do believe that their needs to be accountability standards. ... I would urge you to exercise caution in the future.”

Numbers show a strong demand in Winter

Park for Saturday SunRail service. Statistics from Winter Park city staff show that Saturday ridership is 66 percent higher on average than the average weekly ridership during fiscal year 2016.

Roughly 4,100 people have visited Winter Park using the Saturday SunRail service, or roughly 22 percent of all Saturday ridership. Church Street brings up second place with 14 percent of the Saturday ridership.

The CRA Board voted unanimously to contribute 75 percent of its original promised sum, or $15,000 in funding, since SunRail ran during six out of eight Saturdays leading up to Christmas. Gardner Eckbert said the Chamber and the Merchants Association will follow suit by paying $3,750 of their contribution.

SunRail spokesperson Jessica Ottaviano said that SunRail service on Saturday, March 18 has been set in stone, but a schedule has not been released yet. SunRail is considering another Saturday in April as well, she said.