- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - The track wasn’t always clear, but commuter train service has arrived in central Florida.

After years of debate and political squabbling, the region ushered in its first light-rail, mass transit system as federal, state and local officials christened the train and its 12 initial stations during a rolling celebration Wednesday.

“SunRail is absolutely going to change the way we live,” Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs told a cheering crowd of onlookers during the grand opening event in Orlando. “It’s truly going to change the way we get to work.”

Riders from the general public can begin using the service for the first time Thursday. They will be able to ride it free for the first two weeks, with paying service beginning May 19. Organizers also say about 15,000 people have already bought pre-sold tickets or reloadable SunCards for when paying service begins.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected more than $2 billion in federal high-speed rail funding in early 2011 that would have connected Tampa and Orlando. But after some hesitation, a few months later he approved a deal that opened construction for SunRail after he was sold on its job-creation benefits and potential to reduce congestion on Interstate 4, the region’s main east-west highway.

Politicians on both ends of the political spectrum acknowledge that the initial 32-mile phase of the $1.2 billion SunRail will easily be the region’s largest mass transportation experiment when riders begin using the project, which is also aimed at securing the area’s long-term economic health.

The train service is expected to get a ridership boost from commuters who will be affected by the upcoming $2 billion Interstate 4 improvement project. The project, slated to begin in 2015, will reconstruct major interchanges and bridges over a 21-mile stretch, and add express lanes to the highway. The I-4 project won’t be completed until 2021.

“This is a very big moment. If you look toward the future, 40 to 50 years from now, people in this younger generation are all looking for transit,” Seminole County Commission Chairman Bob Dallari said. “If we are going to keep pace with the rest of the world, mass transit has to be a focus of central Florida. Real estate folks talk about location, location, location. But if you can’t get there, there’s no location.”

So far about $1.7 billion in various development projects have occurred around the initial SunRail stations. That is expected to increase with recent news that the federal transportation budget will include funding for Phase 2 of the train - which will extend it 17 miles south into Osceola County.

Orlando resident James Canton, 33, said he’s excited about the new options to get to Volusia County, where he works as a welder. It is estimated that Volusia alone has around 35,000 commuters that use I-4 to cross the St. Johns River daily.

But Canton said he’s reserving judgment until he rides.

“Like everything, it’s about how it works,” he said. “If it’s dependable, I’ll use it. If it’s not, I’ll keep driving.”

Still, there are Seminole County retirees like Carl and Marsha Sjoberg, who have been looking for an easier way to get to nearby areas to shop and enjoy restaurants. They were all smiles in Winter Park on Tuesday scouting out the station there.

“It should make it quite a bit better to come down here and have lunch, which we like to do,” Carl Sjoberg said. “There are a lot of good restaurants down here. It’s only two counties, so it should be a lot cheaper for us.”

“A lot cheaper than gas,” Marsha Sjoberg chimed in.