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Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tri-Rail

It's astounding to see the crap people struggle to pull onto the train every day. I didn't realize that they're making suitcases the size of small cars now until I saw people haul them onto Tri-Rail with my own eyes. Other things that get crammed into the luggage rack or hugged against knees include power tools, golf bags, shopping carts, and plenty of baby strollers. One woman put a huge birdcage on the luggage rack one day, with a couple of parrots inside. They stayed remarkably calm. Another guy regularly insists on bringing a moped that's nearly as big as a full-blown motorcycle and takes up a lot of space. Tri-Rail guards never seem to care, but I wonder why the guy doesn't just ride the thing instead of bringing it on a train.

It's the bicyclists I inspect the most. Out of habit, I guess. There was a Bosnian man I met when I noticed his chain was sagging because the back wheel on his junker wasn't adjusted correctly. I showed him how to put it right, and out of him spilled a quick story as his station approached. He was carrying several books in heavy plastic bags on his handlebars, including a $159 psychology textbook that was worth about 159 times as much as his crappy bike. The man, in his late 40s, was studying psychology and philosophy and other erudite subjects, and the bicycle was his dad's. And thanks for fixing it.

Wish I'd had longer to talk with him.

Over the weeks, cyclists become familiar as they maneuver their bikes around one another while some come on and others get off.

Kayla comes on at Lake Worth, toting a gleaming Specialized Sirrus, a hybrid commuter bike with the frame and gearworks of a road racer. She disembarks at Boca Raton to get to her job at FAU.

Then there's Jason and his old-school Schwinn cruiser, a cool rolling relic. He works on the tarmac at Fort Lauderdale airport, parking planes.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Jim rode a junker, a Murray, which was enough to get him to the steel-wire factory where he's worked for 17 years. But someone stole the bike out of his pickup truck, and he replaced it with another cheap no-name two-wheeler that is a little lighter. In March, he's chucking everything and moving to Hawaii. He goes to work so early, I never see him on the southbound, but we often take the northbound home together to his exit in Lake Worth.

Mason has the coolest bike of all. A Surly frame, Mavic wheels, nice components, and straight handlebars. It's a custom commuter bike assembled by someone so obsessed with cycling, he has tattoos of chain rings on each of his knees. Mason is doing graduate work in Miami to be a social worker. He lives in Lake Worth and has a long train ride.

My morning Tri-Rail leg ends at the Broward Boulevard station, where I disembark and begin the best part of my day, flying downtown in the bike lane past cars stuck in traffic.

Suckers.

Thing is, the traffic is only going to get worse. Which is why, Scott Seeburger reminds me, Tri-Rail was built in the first place.

Seeburger works for the state department of transportation and is helping plan the next major rail project in South Florida, a parallel rail service on the FEC tracks that run through the downtowns of cities like Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, and Miami. He was also involved with Tri-Rail when it was being dreamed up, 20 years ago, and says he was the one who made the projections for it. Back then, he says, he predicted that in 20 years the train would be carrying 15,000 riders a day.

Twenty years later, Tri-Rail's Bonnie Arnold reports that the line is carrying about 13,000 a day, with ridership increasing 36 percent in the past year. It's a little short of what Seeburger predicted, but it's taken longer than he expected for improvements like double-tracking, which helped cut down on the legendarily late trains. Another thing that helped was a huge day of ridership in June when thousands took Tri-Rail to Miami for the Heat championship parade. Word is spreading, Seeburger says, and he thinks that his 15,000 prediction will soon come true.

Another statistic: Tri-Rail is mandated by law to cover 25 percent of its cost with revenue from tickets. That means the railroad, even when it's full, will never be self-sufficient and will always require government subsidies.

Critics don't like that, suggesting that Tri-Rail riders shouldn't get a handout. But that's because they rarely total up the huge price tag the public pays for subsidizing our driving habits. Think about what we all pay so that motorists can speed to the Qwik-E-Mart or the Waffle House: not just the obvious stuff like the cost to build and maintain roads and dig up resources to build automobiles or even the terrible costs of highway deaths. There are all of those other things that come with a car culture: the warping effects of highways on American cities, the invasive sprawl of the suburbs, the health dues that commuters pay for having to grab a meal on the run, the lack of exercise for vehicle-strapped Americans, the crap in the air we breathe, our reliance on foreign oil.

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