Next Stop, Nowhere

Just wait till you see what this bad boy can do out on the open track

And we were doing so well. Just a few minutes after the northbound Tri-Rail train begins its jaunt from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach, we slow to a crawl and stop for no apparent reason. Engineer and conductor converse. Radio static cuts through the quiet. An employee leaves the train to manually flip the switch that ensures we're traveling where we're supposed to. The signal problem has cost us commuters almost 20 minutes. Since beggars can't be choosers, though, no one complains.

As Nick, the only other passenger on this car, points out: "It beats walking."

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.

It might be preferable to walking, but it sure ain't cheap: The sparsely traveled line is costing taxpayers plenty. County figures put the public subsidy for Tri-Rail at nearly $9 anytime anyone boards it. And it may be about to get a lot more expensive than that. Officials of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority are considering a plan to open a new north-south line -- at a cost of at least $800 million.

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."

The Tri-Rail system was never supposed to be this expensive. Because of its innocuous start as a temporary traffic-mitigation measure and because the project has been expanded in small increments, the kind of planning that generally precedes a billion-dollar public-works project never occurred. In the end, the stop-gap became part of the transportation landscape. "Once you start service, it's extremely hard to stop," Polzin says. "You've made the commitment and invested the capital."

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?'"

Riders ask similar questions.

There is, for instance, Tri-Rail's service to and from the region's three metro-area airports. It's a tough slog, air travelers will tell you. Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International is located on the far side of I-95 from the Tri-Rail station, a bus ride away. West Palm Beach International's situation is even worse. The train runs tantalizingly close to the airport but stops miles away at Okeechobee Boulevard. Only Miami International Airport is well-served, with the train stop a short shuttle ride from the terminal.

The train now runs hourly from about 4:30 in the morning until 8 at night. Weekend trains are less frequent and run about an hour later. But when this magical double track is completed, raves Tri-Rail media rep Bonnie Arnold, South Florida will have a mass transit system it can be proud of. 'We'll go from 28 trains a day to 48 trains a day," she gushes. "And with 20-minute headways during rush hour, it'll function much more like a New York type of system. When you get to a station, you'll either have just missed a train or a train'll be arriving very shortly."

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