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Passengers riding SunRail disembark at Church Street Station.
Passengers riding SunRail disembark at Church Street Station. (Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel)

Volusia County intends to opt out of extending SunRail passenger-train service from DeBary to DeLand even as long-awaited federal funding finally appears to be available.

Ed Kelley, chairman of the Volusia County Council, informed SunRail’s board Thursday of the decision, stating that his county can’t afford the extension and also does not want to continue to take part in management as the system transfers in 2021 from state to local control.

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Volusia County leaders had complained often in previous years about potentially being liable for a full share of SunRail costs even as SunRail service did not include DeLand.

But in recent months, the state Department of Transportation lobbied federal counterparts to make available unused highway funds for a SunRail extension to DeLand.

State transportation officials for SunRail confirmed Thursday that $35 million in federal financing appeared likely for the commuter-rail system. That brought something of a showdown at Thursday’s meeting as Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer turned to Kelley.

“So Commissioner Kelley, funds are available to build Phase 2 north,” Dyer said, referring to the planned extension north to DeLand. “We’ve talked about this for five years so I think today is the day we really need to know what Volusia’s wishes are with regard to Phase 2 north.”

Kelley’s response included that the money needed for the extension might be better used elsewhere along the four-county system.

“That wasn’t as clear as I had hoped,” Dyer said.

Kelley said his county would consider operating the DeBary station and would like to have the option of revisiting an extension to DeLand. “Volusia County is not as wealthy as the other counties,” Kelley added.

“OK, to be perfectly clear, Volusia is asking that we not proceed with Phase 2 north?” Dyer said in response.

“That’s clear,” Kelley said. “With the understanding that it could be brought up at a later time.”

Dyer and other board members agreed to have their staffs analyze the steps needed for Volusia’s withdrawal.

After the meeting, Kelley said his county estimated the cost of extending service would be nearly $100 million and that Volusia’s share would be $20 million. “Which would put us in a bind,” he said.

The original vision for SunRail, which opened five years ago with service from south Volusia County to south Orange County, included a station in DeLand.

But as SunRail extended into Osceola County last year, growing from 12 stations to 16 and from 32 miles of service to 49, federal funding for SunRail withered, leaving DeLand service in limbo.

Volusia’s disclosure appeared to provoke frustration from Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dallari, a member of the SunRail board.

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“You almost gave a sense that you don’t like working with us,” Dallari said, looking toward Kelley but not saying more.

“It’s not that we don’t like working with you,” Kelley said. “But this is taxpayers’ money and I’ve always been a conservative when it comes to money.”

Kelley said potential funding for SunRail, though envisioned as a way to relieve traffic congestion, might better be spent on road improvements.

“If the funds can be used to better address traffic congestion … need I mention I-4? Need I mention 95?” Kelley said.

Kelley also said that any money allocated for the DeLand station should be considered for expanding SunRail’s schedule to 18 hours daily.

Dallari stressed the need for a detailed examination of the financial implications of Volusia’s intended withdrawal from the DeLand extension and from SunRail’s board.

“If Volusia wants out, do we stop at DeBary or do we stop at less than DeBary?” Dallari said, before going onto say “It may make sense to stop in Sanford. Why do need to go over the river if you have to maintain a bridge?”

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