A $15.8 million federal grant has been announced to support a rail link in Orlando that would help extend the proposed Brightline intercity train toward Tampa and the SunRail commuter train to the airport.
The grant, from the U.S. Department of Transportation Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Grant Program, was announced Wednesday by Brightline and Interstate 4 corridor Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Val Demings, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto and Dan Webster.
The federal money would be matched by up to $15.8 million from Brightline for what’s been dubbed the “Sunshine Corridor” project — a missing link for the expansion ambitions of both railroads.
The Sunshine Corridor plan, hammered out earlier this year in negotiations between federal officials including the congressional members, Orange County officials and officials of SunRail and Brightline, provides the prospect of ending long-standing disputes that have derailed previous proposals.
The Sunshine Corridor would extend SunRail commuter train service to Orlando International Airport and the Orange County Convention Center, and extend Brightline higher-speed intercity passenger rail service from the airport to Walt Disney World and then on to Tampa from there.
Brightline, the nation’s only private provider of intercity passenger rail service, is currently operating between Miami and West Palm Beach. The company is building a railroad to connect West Palm Beach to the Orlando airport, to be finished late this year and to begin carrying passengers next year. The company next wants to connect Orlando to Tampa.
SunRail has envisioned a connection from its north-south corridor to the airport since the commuter train’s inception in 2014, but those plans never went anywhere.
For decades, high-speed rail passenger train proposals to connect Orlando to Tampa had hit disputes over whether the best route would be from the Orlando airport south to State Road 417, or due west to International Drive. The southward route could serve Walt Disney World. The westward route could serve the Orange County Convention Center, the I-Drive tourist district, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld.
The proposed Sunshine Corridor and Brightline’s ambitions could extend train service to both tourist destination areas. Though the I-Drive area interests have hailed the idea as a breakthrough, Walt Disney World has not publicly expressed a position on the proposal.
The federal grant application received substantial community and bipartisan support, according to the release. Demings, Murphy and Soto are Democrats. Bilirakis and Webster are Republicans.
“As a result of this administration’s efforts to improve our nation’s infrastructure, Central Floridians will be one step closer to easily accessing Orlando International Airport, our beautiful theme parks, and Tampa,” Soto said in the release.
“This grant will help ensure this rail line that connects Central Floridians and our tourists to key points across our region is operating efficiently and effectively,” Webster said.
The engineering work would design plans for a completely grade-separated, mostly double-tracked railway, built within the right-of-way of the I-4 median and other transportation corridors.