Again, this system is about the closest analogue out there to what Mike Krusee’s puppets at Capital Metro are proposing this time around. It serves primarily suburban areas; doesn’t reach any downtowns or other activity centers; has high-frequency “circulators” at every station; etc.
One key difference, though: Tri-Rail’s 15-year experiment with the horrible route doesn’t preclude them, at least technically, from going to a much better route (down the FEC railroad which DOES run through the major actviity centers of the region). In Austin’s case, if commuter rail is built, you can’t technically OR politically build light-rail on the 2000 corridor, and I don’t think you can even do it on the modified “keep going north on Lamar” corridor proposed briefly in 2003. In other words, we’re worse off – if we’re making a mistake here, we not only waste a decade or more and a hundred million bucks, we ALSO prevent ourselves from building the rail right.
A week’s worth of trips on the Tri-Rail, South Florida’s poky, 15-year-old commuter railway, recently confirmed the conventional rat-racing wisdom: The train serves not the region’s most populated areas but the fringes. It doesn’t offer riders destinations they truly need or desire, nor convenient times to get there. It’s underutilized, even during rush hour. It’s not located where people like Nick — an unemployed construction worker who says he’s “between cars” — are most likely to use it.
Since its start, Tri-Rail has operated on the CSX tracks, west of I-95. After about $1 billion of expenditures on its current line, transportation officials are considering shifting their main focus to the more desirable Florida East Coast Railway line, which links the region’s coastal city centers. The FEC, long resistant to the idea, now says it’s willing, maybe. The state has applied for $5 million in federal funds to analyze options along the FEC corridor where, critics say, Tri-Rail should have been located all along.
“Was this the best investment?” asks Steve Polzin, director of public transit research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “You wonder what could have been accomplished if they had not rushed into it. If, for example, they’d waited a few years and bought the FEC.” Tri-Rail began operating in January 1989 to alleviate traffic during construction on I-95. As the highway project continued unabated, though, the commuter train became a permanent fixture. But Tri-Rail officials never took their eyes off the far-preferable downtown route — even now, in the midst of its largest overhaul ever, including the construction of a second track along the 72-mile line and a new bridge over the New River, both of which are under way to the tune of $340 million.
Is a second track to nowhere really the answer? “It’ll be nice to have,” Polzin concedes. “There’s value in having a corridor in good condition with double-track capacity. But is it worth that much money, especially if something happens with the rail farther to the east? When you think of the expenditure, you could argue that a marginal demand necessitated it.”
Joseph Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, acknowledges that the new plan may render the current Tri-Rail obsolete. “But when you’ve invested a little over a billion dollars to make this one functional — which it is,” he says, “you have to look at how to support that function.”
Tri-Rail runs through a metropolitan strip that’s now home to 5.2 million people. In February, it carried just 10,151 passengers a day (the highest average since April 1994). Unlike most commuter rail systems, it doesn’t serve even one downtown area. “It’s unique nationally in the sense that it doesn’t penetrate a downtown,” Polzin notes. “It’s an anomaly. You scratch your head and ask, ‘Could they have done more with it?'”
But Polzin isn’t quite ready to call Tri-Rail a failure. “It’s certainly not a raving success,” he says, “but the community seems comfortable with it. At least you feel good that you tried. But you have to ask how much additional investment, if any, makes sense. Perhaps there will be a greater appreciation for commuter rail in the future, but it’s not a slam-dunk by any stretch of the imagination.”
Tri-Rail wants to boost ridership to 68,000 a day by 2015, which would reduce the cost per rider from a current $8.81 to $5.06. Back in 1999, the agency’s then-director, Linda Bohlinger, gave the commuter system five years to accumulate 20,000 riders a day, opining that if that goal weren’t reached, “either we don’t know what we’re doing or the public doesn’t really need it.”
Again, this is what Mike Krusee wants for Austin: a rail line which requires that you transfer to shuttle buses if you want to get anywhere, and that doesn’t go anywhere near the densest residential parts of the city. Does this sound like a good idea to anyone?