By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Central Florida is scheduled to roll out a commuter rail system on May 1 along a major interstate corridor that runs through downtown Orlando, becoming the first new system to open in the United States in three years.
SunRail will extend a total of 61 miles at a cost of $1 billion by the time a second phase is completed in 2016.
The new commuter rail system opens during a time of rising public transit ridership. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) in March reported a record 10.7 billion trips taken nationally in 2013, fed in part by investments in transit by states and cities to attract new businesses and workers.
SunRail will run in a generally north-south direction through the eastern side of central Florida with downtown Orlando near the midpoint. The train bypasses the city's major theme parks.
Stops include several suburbs, two large Orlando hospitals and medical complexes and the Amway Arena, the stadium of the NBA's Orlando Magic.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said one goal for SunRail was to change future growth patterns in central Florida away from suburban sprawl toward more walkable urban environments increasingly popular today.
Since SunRail was funded, nearly $1.7 billion in new development, including 4,500 residential units, has been completed or is under construction within a 10-minute walk of a commuter station, according to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).
"We're competing for the bright, talented, young people and entrepreneurs with places like Austin and San Francisco to bring that talent to Orlando," Dyer said. "They expect public transit."
The wider vision is for SunRail to tie into an extensive public transit network linking Orlando and Miami by an inter-city higher-speed rail.
Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), which owns a prime century-old rail line along Florida's east coast, announced plans in 2012 for All Aboard Florida, a three-hour passenger train service between Orlando and Miami, now projected by the company to launch in 2015.
All Aboard Florida says 50 million people a year travel between Orlando, the most visited U.S. city, and Miami, Florida's largest urban area, creating a feasible market for what would be the first privately funded, owned and operated inter-city passenger rail service in the country in a half a century.
If the project succeeds, "then you've expanded the effective commuter shed that someone could live in Miami and work in Orlando or vice versa," said David Levinson, urban systems researcher and civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota.
"It happens in Europe all the time and it happens in the Northeast Corridor all the time."
SunRail is the tenth new commuter rail system completed in the United States since 2000, and follows the 2011 opening of the 21-mile "A Train" in Denton, Texas, according to the APTA.
Other new systems since the turn of the century were built in Austin, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Nashville, Albuquerque, Seattle, Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon.
Despite President Barack Obama's attempt to jump-start high-speed rail construction across the country with $8 billion in his 2009 economic stimulus package, no European or Japanese-style train has been constructed, Levinson said.
Projects in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio were cancelled by Republican governors who criticized the federal government for wasteful spending. Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott also cited the risk of cost overruns being absorbed by the state.
California, the beneficiary of federal money diverted from those states, is facing legal and funding hurdles for a proposed train from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
In Texas, mayors in Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth recently endorsed a plan by a private company, Texas Central Railway, to create a high-speed line between the two metropolitan areas.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Andrew Hay)