Next Stop, Nowhere

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

This month, Tri-Rail will begin building a 55-foot-high bridge over the New River, paralleling the highway. After its scheduled completion this fall, pleasure craft need never hold up commuters again, though Amtrak and Tri-Rail will still have to juggle schedules. Tri-Rail likes the idea of the train's zooming over the bridge while rat-racers stuck in traffic sit and watch longingly. The trains, Arnold explains, are their own commercial. "It's such a great ad!" she trumpets.

Ride the Tri-Rail rails for a few days at various hours, though, and you begin to see the glaring weak spots. Serving as both a Tri-Rail and an Amtrak stop, the Fort Lauderdale station buzzes with construction drilling and digging. Despite the fact that the station is located beneath Broward Boulevard, right next to the interstate, it has its very own exit ramp from I-95, which leads to an entire city block of empty parking lots. Somewhere along the way, Tri-Rail's "build it and they will come" philosophy hit a snag here.

As upscale commuters fight the I-95 traffic, Tri-Rail gives you a glimpse of how the other half lives. Here's Canute, a bartender at Chili's, sitting opposite 22-year-old Rebecca, dressed in stained flip-flops, cargo shorts, unwashed dreads, and a sleeveless T-shirt with the slogan "Ini Una Mas." Canute worked only two days this week, earning a grand total of $72, so he's spending today taking the train to Hollywood so he can "go to the casino and try to win some money."

The little train that almost sorta kinda could, maybe.
Colby Katz
The little train that almost sorta kinda could, maybe.

Canute looks Rebecca up and down and asks in a pleasant tone of voice if she's affiliated with MOVE, the radical Philadelphia organization he remembers primarily as being "natural, down to earth, you know -- they don't use deodorant." Canute adds hastily: "Not that you have an odor."

Rebecca, who seems not to have visited Mr. Bathtub in some time, is traveling to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to fetch her spring-breaking sister.

Tri-Rail is "the wave of the future," insists Willard Boudreau, enjoying a vacation from Hamilton, Ontario. "Especially for getting around populated areas. I leave my car at home." Today, Tri-Rail is taking him from Hollywood up to West Palm Beach, where he'll have to see it all by 8 p.m., when the last train heads south.

Though Boynton Beach is still four stations from the end of the line, the conductor announces, as the train slows down: "The next stop is the last stop!" It's time for the midday bus bridge: The line is shut down from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. weekdays so construction of the new track can occur with no interference from trains, and passengers are shuttled by bus to the three remaining stops.

Mangonia Park may be a small subdivision, a green swale, or a forgotten municipality -- no one really seems to know -- but as the final stop in South Florida's first crack at world-class mass transit, it should be something more than (a) a Coke machine, (b) a deserted jai-alai arena, and (c) an enormous parking lot. But it's not.

With the help of a GPS, the trains usually run on time nowadays, but that may be a hollow victory. "For a billion-dollar investment, you'd hope for more than 10,000 people a day using it," Polzin says. "The numbers aren't where they hoped they'd be."

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."

Given Tri-Rail's delays (the ride from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale, less than an hour by car, often takes two hours plus), signal problems, and right-of-way issues that the train clearly encounters every day, the answer may be: a little of both. Though commuters do use Tri-Rail to get to work, many are like Iris, an exhausted-looking woman wearing a cleaning-lady uniform who lugs two grocery bags full of supplies aboard the train and smells of ammonia and faux lemon. Iris' daughter needs the car during the week to get to school. Those bankers, office workers, and retailing moguls that Tri-Rail hopes to win over? Look for them on I-95.

The one upbeat part of the system seems to be the school population. Every weekday, 1,300 students use Tri-Rail to attend magnet schools in Palm Beach County. When these teenagers pack the cars, Tri-Rail feels almost like a vital part of a chaotic transportation grid.

Tri-Rail, citing incremental increases in ridership, remains relentlessly optimistic. "If we're increasing ridership when across the country commuter rail is decreasing in ridership," Arnold says, "I don't even think we can begin to imagine what'll happen. Once we get the system really working, it's beyond the imagination how many passengers we'll be carrying."

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