Sunday, March 1, 2009

Tri Rail's Financial Woes Offer Cautionary Tale

These should be glory days for South Florida's Tri-Rail line. Its route from West Palm Beach to Miami was recently double-tracked and last year it carried a record four million riders. Yet its future is in the air.

The reason is that Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, which subsidize its operations to the tune of $4 million a year, want to pare that figure to $1.5 million, the minimum required under state law. If that were to happen, Tri-Rail says it would be forced to cut its frequency by 60 percent and eliminate weekend and holiday service. But there's a "Catch 22." If Tri-Rail service levels were to fall below 48 trains a day, the federal government could sue to recoup the $333 million it spent on the double-tracking project.

To avoid having to cut service, Tri-Rail has proposed a $2/day tax on car rentals, which could generate $50 million a year, given the large numbers of tourists who visit the Sunshine State's attractions. I count myself among their numbers since I rent cars during my annual pilgrimage to visit the parents, who live not too far from Tri-Rail's tracks.

Tri-Rail tried to get the rental tax enacted one before, in 2006. But, it was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. According to an editorial in the Palm Beach Post, "If it doesn't pass this year, Tri-Rail is basically dead."

There's lesson in Tri-Rail's woes for backers of a commuter line proposed for the Orlando area. The state legislature is prepared to sign off on a $1.2 billion plan to start up that line, known as Sun Rail.
"SunRail boosters in Orlando should know that paying for Tri-Rail has become a perennial crisis...Legislators need to make sure that Tri-Rail has a permanent source of operating money before starting a new rail service with no clear plans on where money will come from to operate it."
Tri-Rail's future might not be as bleak as the Post editorial suggests. Another option it is looking at is raising fares, which have been fixed for 14 years. Tri-Rail's fares are among the lowest in the country. A monthly ticket costs $80 dollar. By comparison. a monthly ticket from New Haven to Grand Central Terminal on Metro North, a distance comparable to West Palm Beach - Miami, costs $386 and could go up by as much as $100 this year.

No passenger rail operation can sustained without a reliable source of operating funds. There is no set formula for how much should come from the farebox versus state and local treasuries, but a reliable formula needs to be put in place. Federal officials should demand accountability from operating authorities that seek Uncle Sam's support for public transit projects. Without a reliable business
operating plan, no funds should be spent on new rail projects.


  1. Why even consider Sun Rail at this point in time?

  2. Why shouldn't we consider SunRail? People in large metropolitan areas need options. Frankly, every metropolitan area with more than a million residents should have a commuter rail to connect downtown areas with surrounding suburbs. These investments, I know, are expensive, but aren't we worth it? A great nation should have great options for transportation. You deserve, I deserve it and so does everybody else.