Sunday, February 26, 2017

SunRail ticket revenue is less than ticketing expense

It’s no secret that tickets bought by SunRail passengers pay only a tiny fraction of the commuter train’s bills, but less known is that ticket revenue doesn’t even cover the cost of selling tickets.
SunRail’s finances would be slightly stronger if riding was free. Put another way, the revenue of $1 to $7.50 per ticket is devoured by ticket machines, employees who support ticket sales and armored cars that collect fares, and does nothing to keep the train running.
“If we have to pay more money to collect revenue than we are actually collecting, why does it make sense to collect it at all?” asked Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, speaking this week as a member of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission.
The question, an aside during a budget review, was rooted in real-world experience. Orlando has operated free buses in the city’s core, now carrying about as many passengers as SunRail, for nearly 25 years.
SunRail’s ticket pricing was set in motion according to a mature commuter system, which remains years away.
In the last half of last year, ticket revenue was $914,572, while ticket costs were $932,690. Since SunRail began in 2014, ticket revenue of about $5.4 million was $147,872 less than ticket expenses.
“Are you serious?” was the response from Gloria Balaguer, when told of the ticket economics as she stepped off a train at Central Station with her 3-year-old son on Friday.
 “Maybe they should do away with the ticket machines,” said Cathy Griffin, a retiree waiting for a train.
SunRail’s operator, the Florida Department of Transportation, had two responses: the commuter train would be wildly or even possibly too popular if there was no charge; and, when the current service of 31 miles is doubled in coming years, ticket income may exceed ticket expenses.
Dyer asked whether with a coming route expansion ticketing “will at least break even?”
“That would be hopeful,” said Nicola Liquori, DOT’s director of SunRail.
The unscheduled discussion popped up as SunRail faces a confluence of pressing challenges, including Florida DOT’s 2021 handing over of operations and costs to local governments.
Construction of a southern extension into Osceola County, adding four station and 17 miles, has fallen behind. Florida DOT had expected to finish it later this year but now fears work may not be done until summer next year.
“It’s very disappointing,”  said Viviana Janer, a member of the commuter-rail commission and an Osceola County commissioner.
Also a worry for DOT and SunRail supporters is the uncertainty of a critically needed, and already once-denied, federal grant to build a northern extension of SunRail farther into Volusia County.
Florida DOT expects to apply for the grant this year, but Liquori said that amid early days of President Donald Trump she is waiting for direction from the Federal Transit Association.
“As you might you might expect with the new administration, they are not entirely certain what the timing of that opportunity is but they assured us they would let us know as soon as they knew something,” Liquori said.
A third source of stress for SunRail is flagging ridership. Below expectations from the start, train usage dropped to 887,070 riders in 2016 from 932,161 passengers the year before.
Average daily ridership bounced from 3,303 in November to 3,623 in December and down to 3,407 last month.
Florida DOT spokesman Steve Olson explained to the commuter-rail commission that SunRail has lost the “buzz” of its early days.
“How do we create that buzz again? How do we get that excitement out there?” Olson said.
Marketing consultant Carson Chandler described efforts by the commuter railroad to enlist local artists “to take a SunRail train and turn it into a rolling art gallery.”
Art would be affixed inside and outside train cars by mid-March, Chandler said.
One of SunRail’s effective drawing cards, Saturday service for major entertainment events, is about to end.
That occasional service began late last year, paid for by businesses and government entities at a rate of more than $20,000 for each Saturday.
Enough sponsorship money remains to run trains Saturday, March 18, for the popular Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival and possibly once again in April.
Dyer has asked DOT to prepare projections of when revenue from ticketing would exceed costs of ticketing. “It would make sense to me just to offer free service,” he said.
But Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, a member of the commission, said SunRail’s image would take a hit if tickets were suspended now, then brought back when the train’s route is extended.
Later, Dyer agreed with Jacobs.
“There is an optic to ‘oh, you’ve been giving free ridership and now you expand the service and you are going to charge us?’”

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