Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Tri-Rail battens down to ride out a fiscal storm

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One of America's great commuter rail success stories is starting to look more like a cautionary tale. South Florida's Tri-Rail system, which increased its ridership 22.9% last year to 4,303,509, is preparing to eliminate 20 of its 50 weekday trains that operate between Miami and West Palm Beach, plus all of its weekend and holiday trains.

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Nothing short of a miracle that no one expects can forestall this worst-case scenario, and Tri-Rail is slimming down, hoping to get by for the next 18 months on a vastly reduced operating budget until the national economy--and the tax money that supports Tri-Rail--get back to normal. The trains come off starting Oct. 5.

When and if the trains come back, riders who have been enticed to give up their auto commutes will have to be wooed back. In addition to the cuts in service, a fare increase that goes into effect next month is expected to reduce ridership by 6%.

Tri-Rail's last hope for operating dollars to replace funds lost to the recession ended when a proposed $2-a-day rental car tax died in the legislature, which adjourned Tuesday after approving a $65 billion state budget that included nothing for Tri-Rail. (The legislature also turned down efforts to advance SunRail passenger service in central Florida.)

Serving southern Florida for the last 20 years, Tri-Rail started up as temporary commuter service to relieve highway congestion while an Interstate highway was being rebuilt. It was so successful that it stayed, and grew to the point where South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Joe Giuletti was able to say just a few months ago: "People in South Florida, like record numbers across the country, have come to realize that using public transportation isn't just about saving money on gasoline; it's also about mobility, sustainability, and taking responsibility for the environment."

Unfortunately, some people in Florida and across the country still have to learn that commuter rail service isn't just about moving the masses--it's also about dedicated funding. That's an item Florida lawmakers refused to find for Tri-Rail.