More on What We’re In For

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 state�s continued development and growth.
Resigned to Tri-Rail�s financial reality, but resolute about its future, Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons admitted Tri-Rail �will never, never, ever pay for itself� 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 it�s 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 �downtown�, and only indirect services via, bus, taxi or Metrorail will get you to the region�s 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: �It�s tough trying to promote a railroad in the middle of I-95 construction.�

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.

�We�re too suburban,� according to Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty, who says Tri-Rail�s 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 Florida�s urban areas.
Without a FEC/TRI-Rail alliance, McCarty sees the need for continued subsidy because of the �inherent fear of feeder bus reliability.� The buses �are often late,� 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.

More on our Commuter Rail Model, Tri-Rail

http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/2004-04-15/news/next-stop-nowhere/

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.

Excerpts:

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?

Lessons from South Florida

I can’t believe it took me this long to find this link, but I finally got it.
http://www.floridacdc.org/articles/030930-1.htm
Excerpts:

Some South Florida leaders are itching to introduce something new to the region’s commuter rail service: a train that takes people somewhere they want to go.
As it stands, Tri-Rail rides on tracks beside Interstate 95. The agency’s trains go through no downtowns, and provide only indirect service to the region’s airports. Getting where you want to go generally involves a second trip via bus, bike, taxi or Metrorail.

The CSX line currently being used by Tri-Rail requires transfers to shuttle buses to get anywhere useful, just like the proposed Austin commuter rail line.

This article also talks about efforts to get Tri-Rail service on another existing rail line which actually runs through the downtown areas of the major cities in the region (allowing people to walk to offices, basically).

Another excerpt:

In a telephone interview, Winton said the FEC line would offer a serious alternative to driving for the growing number of people who commute between counties.

Now, a Broward commuter who works in downtown Miami would have to drive to a Tri-Rail station, take the train to a Metrorail station, take Metrorail to downtown, and possibly take Metromover after that.

In contrast, a passenger service on the FEC line would link downtown Miami with, for example, downtown Fort Lauderdale, which has thousands of new apartments and condominiums either built or on the way.
In hindsight, the decision to put Tri-Rail on the CSX track was probably unwise, Winton said.
”I think it was a huge mistake,” he said. “It doesn’t seem logical to me. It clearly hurts ridership by a ton.”