Next Stop, Nowhere

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...
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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."

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."

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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