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.