In front of more than 300 people and Florida Hospital's future rail station stop, on July 18, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Florida Dept. of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad signed a symbolic funding agreement to build the 31-mi-long first phase of SunRail, Central Florida's future commuter-rail system. The project is expected to create more than 10,000 jobs, according to Peter Rogoff, at the Federal Transit Administration.

It's hard to find bipartisan agreement these days, but on this sun-filled afternoon in Orlando, Republican and Democratic elected and appointed officials were heaping praise on each other's ability to partner and collaborate to bring the SunRail commuter transit project to fruition. 

Rep. John Mica (R) and Rep. Corrine Brown (D) talked about the struggles they experienced as they tried to secure federal dollars for the $1.3-billion project. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, chairman of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission, called the project the future of Central Florida and talked about the transit-oriented development that will stimulate the economy and put people to work. Project officials expect more than 113,000 construction jobs will be created within one-half mile of station stops.

Florida Hospital, an Adventist Health System facility, for instance, has committed to developing an $810-million "Health Village," with retail, medical offices, commercial space and housing. Hospital CEO Lars Houmann announced at the event that Adventist also will build a new 90,000-sq-ft headquarters for its Florida Division and Florida Hospital adjacent to its rail station. A contractor has not been selected, and he did not release a budget. The hospital has committed to pay $3.5 million for the rail stop at its campus and has agreed to subsidize rides for its employees.

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Rendering of Florida Hospital's future SunRail station stop. Image courtesy Florida Hospital

Dyer also praised the weather for cooperating, which led to the only minor disagreement of the day when LaHood complained about the heat.

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Transportation secretaries Ray LaHood and Ananth Prasad sign a symbolic funding agreement that moves SunRail forward. Photo by Debra Wood. 

Nevertheless, LaHood described the event as a celebration of the vision for rail that goes back decades and was accomplished thanks to people working together in a bipartisan way to make it happen.

"President Obama wanted to see this happen," LaHood said. "The jobs that will be created are American jobs for America's future."

The federal government has committed $178.6 million to the SunRail project. Federal dollars will fund half of the project, state money 25% and local communities the remaining 25%. FDOT selected Archer Western/Railworks, a joint venture between Archer Western Contractors of Atlanta and RailWorks Track Systems of New York to build the system. Service is expected to begin in 2014. Phase two will extend the rail line an additional 30 mi and is scheduled to open in 2016.

Many in the community had feared Florida Gov. Rick Scott would kill commuter rail, as he did the Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail line earlier this year. But Prasad said that support for SunRail at a series of workshops FDOT held convinced the governor that the majority of people in the region wanted the project. In addition to Florida Hospital, major employers including Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando and Orlando Health supported the transit project.

Now, if only we could get such bipartisan cooperation to address the country's other pressing issues.