Full steam ahead: Study shows one-third of commuters in walking distance take SunRail

Over 45 percent of commuters who live or work within walking distance of a SunRail station are using the train at least once a week and a third say they use it every day, according to a new study.

The study conducted by MetroPlan Orlando and Florida State University is an admittedly early look at Transit Oriented Developments (TOD), but MetroPlan Transportation Planner Elizabeth Whitton said it creates a good base line for future research.

“This is a look at the success of SunRail during its early stages, the first year or two it was in operation,” she said.

The first task in the study involved analyzing three years of SunRail ridership data and census numbers to identify any station-specific rider trends and where potential riders live and work, according to the study.   

The second step was a deep dive into the demographic, socioeconomic and employment characteristics of those who live in the transit-oriented development around stations.

The study tried to determine the number of work-related commutes that originate and end within a 10-minute walk of a SunRail station.

They found 4,000 potential daily riders, and about a third of them seem to commute daily via train.

The study does have its limits, though. It doesn’t consider all four years SunRail has been in operation, including its recent Southern Expansion into Osceola County, Whitton said of MetroPlan wants to conduct another study in about five years - after the 2020 census is complete - that examines this new ridership.

“This study gives us a good idea of what we don’t know and what we still need to learn,” she said.

The study suggests a need to reframe SunRail less as a commuter train and more as a regional-oriented rail service that operates more frequently and moves people to places like parks, restaurants and sporting events – not just school and work.

It also recommends bringing some diversity to TOD developments around SunRail, including more office and commercial space and fewer residential units. And of the housing units being built, make more of them affordable.

But MetroPlan’s suggestions don’t apply as much to downtown Kissimmee, according to Kissimmee City Manager Mike Steigerwald, who said there are plenty of jobs within walking distance but not as much housing.

“We want to create a good mix of both,” Steigerwald said.

Two major housing projects are in the works right now within the downtown TOD, which extends a half-mile radius around the SunRail station. One is approaching the permitting phase and should add about 300 units to the area. The land for the other development was recently purchased directly across the street from SunRail on Neptune Road, and should also add about 300 units, according to city officials.

Things are also looking bright for development in the county along the Poinciana and Tupperware stations.  

In August, Easy Foods - a manufacture of corn and flour tortillas, chips and other snack products - unveiled its new, 97,000-square-foot production facility in Osceola County. The initial $14 million investment created 175 jobs with plans to add more in upcoming years within the TOD.

That same month, Frito-Lay announced plans to open a 226,000-square foot high-tech facility with 200 employees by 2020 across from the Poinciana station.  

And in September, CSL Plasma, a plasma donation center, said it would build a new 12,000 square-foot facility with approximately 50 beds within walking distance of the Tupperware station.

When it comes to drawing new businesses to TOD areas, the city of Kissimmee and Osceola County take different approaches.  

Officials in Kissimmee actually don’t offer many economic development incentives like tax abatements or rapid permitting to attract developers to downtown.

Instead, they’re hoping recent and ongoing infrastructure improvements do the trick.

“By having things like nice roads, a great lakefront park, a good police department and a walkable community in place, we’re aiming to make the area naturally attractive to developers without having to lure them in with a lot of incentives,” Steigerwald said.

But areas around the Poinciana and Tupperware stations are more isolated than Kissimmee’s bustling downtown hub. That’s why county staffers are exploring TOD guidelines developers must meet in order to qualify for incentives, according to Osceola County spokesman Andrew Sullivan.

Discussions of what those guidelines and standards will be are still ongoing, Sullivan said.

FSU, which helped MetroPlan with the report, is currently working on another study with the Florida Department of Transportation to analyze SunRail’s local financial impact around stations. That study is due in a couple months.