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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Friday, Mar. 17, 2017 3 years ago

Winter Park ponders dropping SunRail ridership

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Fewer and fewer SunRail riders are getting off at Winter Park each year – and the city wants to know why.
by: Tim Freed Managing Editor

SunRail ridership in Winter Park is dropping, but why?

Winter Park City Commissioners contemplated this question as they got an update at their Monday meeting regarding SunRail ridership, which has steadily declined over the past few years.

Winter Park’s average daily ridership on Fridays in 2014-2015 was 846 riders, but that number has almost been cut in half during 2016-2017. Fridays currently see an average daily ridership of 439 riders.

“I think one of the reasons we’re having this discussion is to try and encourage the SunRail management to understand the importance of these statistics to each of their stations, not just Winter Park,” City Commissioner Peter Weldon said.

“There’s a lot of management issues that I think SunRail’s got to address if they’re going to provide the kind of regional service that is going to get more people to use it. … Hopefully someone from SunRail management will be listening.”

Friday numbers do however continue to be higher than Monday through Thursday averages, meaning Winter Park is more of a destination than a stop where people are coming and going to work, Public Works Director Troy Attaway said.

Winter Park is meanwhile trying to get SunRail rolling more frequently on Saturdays.

The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency Board took another cautious step on Feb. 27 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. Another contribution of $5,000 was passed by the CRA Board on Monday.

It’s the fulfillment of a $20,000 commitment by the Community Redevelopment Agency Board from back in September to support SunRail’s Get on Board initiative to fund Saturday service starting in November. Another $5,000 was committed by the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce and the Park Avenue Merchants Association as well.

But that CRA money hadn’t been paid until now 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.

Park Avenue merchants in particular feel like SunRail hasn’t fulfilled their end of the bargain, Winter Park Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Betsy Gardner Eckbert said.

“Our merchants trust us with a certain amount of marketing dollars that we’re meant to spend very deliberately and carefully, and we’ve got to be good custodians of that,” she said. “It’s concerning that the efforts to promote SunRail ridership have not resulted in a net increase in ridership.”

Gardner Eckbert added that consistently incentivizing and conditioning riders to ride is the only way to increase the ridership.

“I think the major problem with SunRail is the lack of consistency in offerings for the Saturday service,” she said. “I think Americans are wedded to their cars and to ask them to change their behavior as radically as using rail requires consistent reinforcement of that behavior.”

“I really believe that asking Central Floridians to adopt rail travel as a way of conveying themselves is a big ask, it’s a big deal.”

Winter Park residents can expect another Saturday of SunRail service this weekend during the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. Trains will run during this Saturday from 10 a.m. to around 1 a.m. the following morning. Riders can visit sunrail.com to see a complete train schedule.

Tim Freed was the managing editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and the Southwest Orange Observer. He previously spent six years covering the Winter Park/Maitland area and is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.

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