Tri-Rail, the commuter rail line which parallels I-95 through most of South Florida, is the transit start most like Austin’s proposed commuter rail line, for good and ill. Read the archives for the whole story, but here’s the short version: It was cheap to get started (used existing track), just like ours will be; it doesn’t go near any downtown areas, just like ours won’t; and it relies exclusively on shuttle buses for passenger distribution, just like ours will. Since then, a hugely expensive double-tracking project has nearly finished without any corresponding improvement in ridership. (The double-tracking has proceeded in phases; portions complete are already in use with their corresponding speed/reliability improvements).
My own observations from my trip home follow the excerpts and comments from this article in the Boca Raton News which appeared recently.
Critics, who suggest that Tri-Rail should be shot and put out of its financial misery, grudgingly admit that railroads are closely linked with the stateÃ¯Â¿Â½s continued development and growth.
Resigned to Tri-RailÃ¯Â¿Â½s financial reality, but resolute about its future, Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons admitted Tri-Rail Ã¯Â¿Â½will never, never, ever pay for itselfÃ¯Â¿Â½ operationally. He nodded when asked if this will mean millions upon millions annually in continued local, state and federal subsidy.
He continued to nod slowly when told that critics are outraged that itÃ¯Â¿Â½s costing taxpayers about $46,000 each and every day so that about 9,000 persons per day on average can ride the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) commuter rail service.
That kind of talk ignores the reality that automobile commuters are incredibly subsidized too, but it bears repeating that Tri-Rail’s economic performance is far worse than most light-rail starts in this country. So you can’t get rid of transit subsidies, but you CAN do a hell of a lot better than that.
And note “9,000 people per day”. After 15 years. On a line much much longer than the one proposed for Austin.
Luksha is among the many South Floridians who derisively note that not a single Tri-Rail train goes through a single Ã¯Â¿Â½downtownÃ¯Â¿Â½, and only indirect services via, bus, taxi or Metrorail will get you to the regionÃ¯Â¿Â½s airports after getting off Tri-Rail.
Yup, just like Austin (nearly zero downtown workers work within the typically considered 1/4 mile walking distance of the station at the Convention Center, so don’t even try me).
Koons sighs: Ã¯Â¿Â½ItÃ¯Â¿Â½s tough trying to promote a railroad in the middle of I-95 construction.Ã¯Â¿Â½
No, it’s not. It should be even easier to get people to take grade-separated transit when the highway option gets worse. It’s not, because the grade-separated transit option in this case has the fatal flaw of relying on shuttle buses to get people where they actually need to go.
Ã¯Â¿Â½WeÃ¯Â¿Â½re too suburban,Ã¯Â¿Â½ according to Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty, who says Tri-RailÃ¯Â¿Â½s financial health in fact may depend on whether SFRTA can negotiate an agreement with Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC) for use of the FEC line that wanders through most of FloridaÃ¯Â¿Â½s urban areas.
Without a FEC/TRI-Rail alliance, McCarty sees the need for continued subsidy because of the Ã¯Â¿Â½inherent fear of feeder bus reliability.Ã¯Â¿Â½ The buses Ã¯Â¿Â½are often late,Ã¯Â¿Â½ she explained.
The FEC railroad runs right through all of the major downtowns in the area — meaning riders of a service there could actually walk from the train station to work.
They’ve learned from painful experience what we’re going to learn because we fell for Mike Krusee and Fred Gilliam”s snow-job.
Now for my observations:
I saw half a dozen Tri-Rail trains (while driving on I-95). All were emptier than Capital Metro’s worst bus routes. I got to see the line from Boynton Beach down to I-595 (Fort Lauderdale), and did not see one lick of transit-oriented development anywhere — the same low-density warehouse sprawl that used to be around the line is still around the line.
A brand new station is under construction (nearly done) in Boca Raton on the old IBM property (where I used to work). This old IBM site was purchased by a company which has subleased to a ton of smaller firms about 5 years ago. The property is also currently full of new construction which seems mostly to be retail uses — interestingly enough, they are oriented as far away from the rail line as feasible — i.e. they do not view proximity to the train station as even slightly desirable. (And the existing offices in the old IBM buildings are a good hike from the train station – especially given South Florida’s weather most of the year). This station’s location was chosen after about five years of failed work trying to get a station built farther south as part of a new transit-oriented development.
Lesson: You don’t get transit-oriented development around a failed rail line. Meaning: the developer contemplating building a project which will incur more cost and potentially less access for motorists is going to want to see people riding the train now who fit their economic profile – i.e. people who can afford cars, but are choosing to ride the train; not the people who ride the train because they have no other choice.
This does not bode well for the Capital Metro backers who think that transit-oriented development can make up for the poor routing of our own starter line.