The Orlando, Fla., region has struggled with traffic congestion for decades now, in part because the area is a huge a tourist magnet. Interstate 4, which runs directly through the heart of the Orlando urban area, has struggled to keep up with the demands of quickly transporting commuters and tourists through the city.
To relieve the burden of all this extra traffic that will only be increasing as time goes by, a light rail system known as SunRail is being built, as Orlando is one of the largest urban areas in the United States without a mass transit system, according to Steve Olson, public information manager, Florida Department of Transportation.
Commuter rail transit (CRT) uses steel-wheeled technology equivalent to a conventional train and is generally power-driven by a diesel locomotive. In the case of the SunRail project, existing CSXT railroad tracks will be used for the system’s planned route. SunRail trains will consist of one to three cars in addition to a locomotive. They’ll have the capacity to carry about 150 seated passengers per car. Maximum operating speed is generally between 65-79 mph.
Since CRT uses existing rail lines, there is no mixing with commuter or bus traffic. Therefore, commuter rail lines typically connect outlying regions to centralized cities over longer distances (typical travel times can be 45 minutes or longer). Riders need to follow a schedule because CRT provides long-haul, limited-hour service. Operating primarily during peak commute periods, the SunRail system will shuttle users downtown or to work areas and then back home.
SunRail proposes to use existing railroad tracks as its main artery. This route would consist of 61 mi. of service to DeLand, through Orlando and downtown Kissimmee to Poinciana. Phase 1 is 31-mi. and will connect DeBary to Sand Lake Road in Orange County. Construction on Phase 1 began in January 2012.
Phase 2 will be built in two sections: the north section from DeBary to DeLand, and the south section from Sand Lake Road through Kissimmee to Poinciana. Phase 2 construction is expected to begin in 2014.
SunRail trains will operate every 30 minutes during “peak” morning (5:30 a.m.-8:30 a.m.) and afternoon (3:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m.) rush hours; and at two-hour intervals during non-peak hours.
Three types of construction taking place: double tracking, grade crossing improvements and station construction. Double tracking consists of building a second track beside the first track to allow two trains to operate simultaneously in two directions. This will take place between DeBary and Maitland, with the exception of the St. Johns River bridge crossing. The corridor is already double tracked from Winter Park through Sand Lake Road. As part of Phase 1, double tracking also will occur from south of downtown Orlando to the Sand Lake Road Area.
During Phase 2, double tracking will take place from Southchase in southern Orange County through Poinciana, with work happening between seven in the morning and one in the afternoon. This will minimize area road traffic.
The Florida SunRail project has been under development for several years, starting with an alternatives analysis in 2004-2005.
“In Florida, such road or transit improvement projects as these involve what are called Metropolitan Planning Organizations which are found throughout the country,” explained Olson. “These are established by federal law and it allows local governments to set transportation funding priorities in addition to identifying funding sources.
“This has been a project that has been advanced by a number of government partners including the Florida Department of Transportation which has been taking the lead in constructing, designing and building SunRail. At the end of construction operations, the entire system will be turned over to our local government partners in Volusia, Orange, Seminole and Osceola Counties as well as the city of Orlando to operate and maintain.”
The operation, maintenance and construction of SunRail will be contracted out by SunRail. They have numerous contracts which have already been awarded, according to Olson. These include their major construction contract within the right-of-way. Areas of the corridor will be double-tracked.
On November 3, 2011 the 61-mi. corridor was purchased from CSX which is currently used for freight transport and by Amtrak; that corridor also will now be used by SunRail, according to Gurnee. SunRail is going through the federal New Starts process which is basically funded with gas tax dollars. One half of the project’s cost will be funded by the federal government, 25 percent by the state of Florida and 25 percent by the local funding partners, which are the four counties and the city of Orlando.
This will be a $615 million turnkey commuter rail operation. In addition the state of Florida purchased the tracks, 51.5 mi. from CSX on November 3, 2011 for $432 million.
“The tracks now belong to us and our contractors are dispatching all trains, including freight and Amtrak on that track as well as being responsible for the maintenance and operations on that track,” added Olson. “Once that contractor finishes building, we are currently having a tracking for industry review and will bring on board late this year or early next year an operations and maintenance contractor who will take over the things on the corridor.
“We have other adjournments; including dividing up into two separate contracts for the station finishes which are the vertical structures on our station platforms. This contract has been just awarded and another has been recently advertised. We have ticket vending machine contracts, two vehicles contracts — one for locomotives and one for country cab cars — and a public marketing contract.”
The first phase of operations for SunRail is the construction of the first 12 stations. Phase 2 North includes a single station and Phase 2 South includes an additional four stations. They are currently under construction with the building of Phase 1. This includes clearing for double tracking of areas that are currently being turned single-tracked portions.
Phase 1 of the project is well under construction. Most of the construction is happening on the northern side of the project right now. Three station sites are under development. Phase 1 has 12 stations total.
Phase 2 will take the system from DeBary to Deland in addition to traveling from the Sand Lake Road location on the south side of Orlando. Phase 2 will go from DeBary to Deland in addition to going from the Sand Lake Road location to Poincianna Station in Osceola County.
When completed there will be 17 stations.
“We are working on that,” said Olson. “Then work will start on another handful of stations, the second round of stations for Phase 2. The distances at the end of the project will be greater while the number of stations will be fewer.
“The system will run similar to light rail when you get to downtown Orlando, with quick stops between stations. It will then have more of a commuter rail flavor as you get farther out into the outlying areas of the system.”
Archer Western Contractors is working in conjunction with Railworks, another contractor on this project. There also is a wide variety of subcontractors.
WBE Environmental is contracted to work on both the rail and station portions of this project. Their primary work is erosion control to help protect the environment while the project is going on, according to Joelle DeVane, WBE Environmental owner.
“One of the things the general contractors are trying hard to do is to make sure that the areas being disturbed, have little to no impact on the adjacent marshes and water systems,” said DeVane. “We are trying to keep them free of any contaminates or debris caused by the construction process.
“Any time you disturb the land and take out the natural root systems, the soil no longer has an anchor to keep it in place and is now more likely to suffer from wind or rain erosion. In the areas that construction has begun, we have put different controls in place to try to slow this process and to protect neighboring properties. This is a requirement in construction and the general contractor is very conscious about doing their part to protect our environment.”
Federal and State regulations require that during construction erosion must be minimized and runoff properly managed. Any project an acre or more requires that the site be monitored on a weekly basis and after a half inch of rain. The requirement applies to both commercial and residential development projects, according to DeVane.
WBE Environmental, which also does business as Florida Silt Fencing, is responsible for placing erosion controls on-site for this project.
The devices consist of silt fences, tree protection and other types of turbidity barriers, which are all temporary controls. As areas are completed, permanent controls, will be put into place, such as sod and other landscaping items.
“If work such as digging is being done around a pond or natural preserve area, controls will be put in place to keep the area protected from pollutants and wind blown debris caused by the construction activity. Our work is small and not typically noticed, because our work doesn’t exist when the job is done. We are more behind the scenes and most people wouldn’t know what we do or even why we do it,” DeVane said.
“If a person asks what we do, we ask if they have ever noticed the black fence around a site under construction. If they have seen it, then they know what we do or understand a little better, what we are talking about.
“Companies like ours are typically one of the first on-site, placing whatever type of control is required to do the job,” DeVane continued. “We take care of what needs to be done, which allows construction to move forward with the confidence that the environment is protected and being impacted as little as possible. We are on-site, at times everyday depending on the progress and need.”
WBE Environmental has worked on four of the stations where construction has begun. They have put up silt fence around wetlands and preserve areas, where needed. Tree protection also is something they will do for trees that are to remain on-site, generally using orange fencing that makes the area very visible to construction crews. The protection is typically put at the drip line, which is the distance the root system extends from the trunk of the tree. All of the temporary controls put in place have a lifespan of under a year. As construction is completed in areas, permanent controls, such as grass and landscaping will be placed.
RWH Construction is the rebar installer on this project. starting with installing rebar in the footers on the station platform foundations.
“At each of the stations, one station is on one side of the tracks and the other is on the other side,” explained Russell Henderson, owner of RWH Construction. “Each footer contains about 500 pounds of steel inside the concrete. We both furnish the rebar and install it. The rebar is three-foot, five-foot and six foot in size. This will be a two-year project. We’ve been out there a little over a month and have gotten material on the ground.”
Though the SunRail, when finished, might not be as exciting to ride as nearby Walt Disney World’s world famous monorail, Central Florida commuters will still be thrilled with all the time saved each day on their way to and from work.