By Rachel Christian

Staff Writer

 

SunRail finally launched operations in Kissimmee last week and local downtown businesses say they’re already seeing a slight uptick in customers utilizing the commuter rail.

“It hasn’t been anything huge, yet,” said Dena Khoury, a waitress at Nadia’s Cafe on Broadway.

She sat with the Mediterranean restaurant’s chef on her break, surveying the late lunchtime crowd.

“But there’s definitely been a few people I’ve waited on already that told me they took the SunRail to get here.”

Facts and figures

The 49-mile north-south Central Florida train debuted in Osceola County July 30. During it’s first four days of operation, total Poinciana and downtown Kissimmee passenger boardings surpassed several established stations to the north, including Longwood, Altamonte Springs and Maitland, according to figures provided by Florida Department of Transportation District Five Communications Manager Steve Olsen. These stations also exceeded ridership projections, he noted.

An average of 465 people boarded the train from downtown Kissimmee during the first four days of the southern expansion, a multi-million dollar project over three years in the making. The Poinciana stop saw an even higher average of 482 passengers, with its debut ridership on July 30 ranking the third highest of all 16 stations that day, according to Olsen.

The Tupperware headquarters station just past the Orange-Osceola county line however showed an underwhelming response compared to Kissimmee’s two other stops, with about 192 boardings – less than half of downtown Kissimmee and Poinciana.

Businesses thankful but hoping for more

At Three Sisters’ Speakeasy – a stone’s throw away from the SunRail downtown Kissimmee station – owner Felix Ortiz said he hopes the trend of high ridership continues to grow.

“There’s a lot of potential and things we have to offer in this area,” he said. “Winter Park, downtown Orlando and us – those are really the only stops that offer restaurants, shops and everything else people want within walking distance.”

SunRail’s 40 trains now run more frequently along its tracks, which span four counties and nine cities.

But Ortiz thinks a few changes could help improve business for all merchants along the SunRail corridor.

Currently, the first train departs Poinciana – the southern-most station – at 5:45 a.m. and runs every half hour until 8:45 a.m. Trains operate less frequently in the afternoon before picking back up around 4:15 p.m. for evening commuters until about 7 p.m. The Monday through Friday train stops running in downtown Kissimmee around 10 p.m.

Ortiz said he would like to see trains run later at night and on the weekends – or at least Saturdays. A marketing push from the city of Kissimmee to the greater Central Florida area could be beneficial, he said.

“People may want to come out and drink, and not have to worry about driving or paying a lot of money for an Uber home,” Ortiz said. “SunRail is open and that’s a great start, but I think a few changes would make people use it more.”

SunRail’s future and local government

Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer heralded the commuter train’s arrival at a Monday afternoon board meeting. Janer, who was elected chair to SunRail’s board of directors earlier this year, has advocated for the southern expansion since taking office as a commissioner in 2014.

On Wednesday, she said she is optimistic about SunRail’s potential to enrich the local economy and opportunities for residents. She pointed to ongoing developments near the Tupperware station, such as Florida Hospital’s freestanding emergency room and health care pavilion. More development may be on the way as an international biotech firm named BioLife Plasma Services filed preliminary plans for a 15,210 square foot plasma center on a 3-acre lot within walking distance of the Tupperware station. The project isn’t a done deal, but officials say that if it goes through, the standalone plasma facility could add 50 to 70 new jobs and pay up to $2 million per year to donors.

Potential growth spurred by available land in Poinciana could also prove promising, Janer noted.

Looking to the future, Janer said adding SunRail service days and hours would be a priority.

“Expanded service is needed,” the commissioner said. “We will continue to work with all of our local, state and federal partners to see if we can’t find the money to operate hours on the weekends and holidays.”

For more information or to see a schedule of Kissimmee SunRail times, visit www.sunrail.com.