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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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