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Monday, January 18, 2010

SunRail's debt load drops by $11 million a year

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Central Florida backers of the SunRail commuter train may be relieved of more than $11 million in annual debt payments that were headed their way, the Orlando Sentinel reports. The state Department of Transportation had intended to borrow $173 million to help pay for the $1.2 billion, 61.5-mile system linking DeLand in Volusia County with downtown Orlando and Poinciana in Osceola County.

But bids for DOT projects are coming in so low because of the bad economy that the agency expects to have enough cash that it would not need to sell bonds to raise the money. Orlando, Orange, Seminole, Volusia and Osceola counties would have had to repay those bonds at a collective cost of $11.3 million annually for 23 years.

Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty said Friday that DOT has been making calls to area government officials to tell of the change in funding plans.

"This is well-timed good news," said Crotty, whose agency would have paid $3 million annually for the bonds.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, whose city would be relieved of $1 million in annual payments, said, "DOT continues to be a great partner as we move forward ... It's a better deal than it was three days ago."

"No bonds, no payback by the local partners," DOT spokesman Steve Olson said.

Operations could begin in late 2012 on its first 30-mile leg, from DeBary in Volusia to Sand Lake Road in south Orange.

The state has agreed to pay CSX Transportation in Jacksonville $432 million for the tracks on which SunRail will roll, as well as for some other improvements to the system operated by the publicly traded train company. The bonds were to be part of that total payment. Another $214 million will be spent by the DOT to improve five rail crossing for another track CSXT owns.

An additional $615 million is expected to be spent improving the SunRail tracks, building 17 stations and buying equipment, such as locomotives and passenger cars.

The DOT has agreed to pay for the first seven years of maintenance and operation costs, after which the local governments would take over. Dyer said the money saved on the bond payments could be used for those expenses.

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