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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
In January 1989, the Tri-County Commuter Rail Organization launched service on a 72-mile commuter-rail line between Miami International Airport and West Palm Beach, Fla. The new service was the first commuter-rail start-up in the United States in 25 years — albeit a temporary one.
Tri-Rail, as it’s commonly known today, was formed by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) in the mid-1980s, when the department purchased right of way from CSX Transportation. Commuter trains were to operate on the line for five years to handle traffic overflows while FDOT completed an Interstate 95 expansion.
But during those five years, people came to depend on the commuter-rail system, especially as south Florida’s population continued to explode and traffic congestion became an even bigger headache. Rather than cease service after five years, the state decided to put money into the corridor to step up service quality — and keep it viable in the years to come.
Fast forward to Jan. 10, 2009, when Tri-Rail — now under the direction of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) — marked its 20th anniversary. The system now is almost entirely double tracked and is a permanent fixture in the south Florida region. Tri-Rail also is one of the fastest-growing commuter-rail systems in the country and currently serves about 15,000 passengers a day, up more than 100 percent vs. 2006. The agency has come a long way since its early years, when it operated 28 trains daily on a not-so-predictable schedule. The years to come will be filled with new challenges, as Tri-Rail works to resolve a funding crisis and plan ways to further expand service and define its role in south Florida’s transportation market.
“We’re a temporary mitigation measure that grew into a commuter-rail system; we’ve gone far beyond the original board’s dreams in terms of where we’d be at this point,” says SFRTA Executive Director Joe Giulietti. “We’re concentrating now on making the right decisions going forward to handle growth.”
The agency has been able to manage growth thus far. In 1995, Tri-Rail began double tracking segments of the railroad, concentrating on the areas with the highest ridership demand, such as Miami International Airport. The trackwork helped Tri-Rail operate more reliable service, especially since traffic volume for CSXT — which still is responsible for dispatching on the corridor — began to steadily grow along with the region.
“It was a single-track railroad with a very limited number of passing sidings,” says Giulietti. “Tri-Rail offered a random service, where they were trying to operate 28 trains a day, but it was all at different times based on when they felt they could get a train through.”
In the late 1990s, the agency applied for a Full Funding Grant Agreement through the Federal Transit Administration for the Double Track Corridor Improvement Program, which called for double-tracking the remaining single-track portions of the railroad. The $333.8 million project included installing 43.5 miles of second mainline track, upgrading the signal system, constructing 11 new bridges and replacing or rehabilitating 13 others, modifying 10 stations, acquiring five locomotives and two cab cars, and making grade crossing improvements.
Tri-Rail obtained an FFGA in 2000; the majority of the project was completed in March 2006 and Tri-Rail began operating 40 trains daily. In 2007, the agency opened the remaining two miles of double track at the New River Bridge in Fort Lauderdale, enabling Tri-Rail to boost service to 50 daily trains.
At the same time, gas prices began soaring to record levels and public transit ridership skyrocketed. Thanks to its recently completed double-track project, Tri-Rail was able to handle the influx of riders. The agency currently carries between 14,500 and 15,500 riders daily, up more than 100 percent vs. 2006. In 2008, the Tri-Rail carried a record 4 million passengers, a 22.9 percent increase vs. 2007.
“We have built capacity to handle 64,000 daily riders, so we’ve been able to meet the demand that suddenly got dropped on us,” says Giulietti.
Now, Tri-Rail passengers are clamoring for more service, especially later at night, on weekends and to the airports. Whether Tri-Rail can afford to provide it remains to be seen; for now, agency officials are just hoping to maintain to the service levels they
“At the same time demand is coming in, the counties and state have a tremendous shortage of funds,” says Giulietti.
SFRTA doesn’t have a dedicated funding source, and counts on allocations from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to help fund its annual budget. Two of the three counties don’t plan on funding the authority beyond the mandated level of $1.5 million in FY2010, which begins in July, says Giulietti. The counties currently provide more than $4 million each.
“If they all drop back to $1.5 million, we would have to cut $14 million from our next budget, and that would put us back to operating 20-some trains a day,” says Giulietti. “We have such tremendous ridership growth and everything you could ever want in a commuter-rail system, but we still don’t have our funding situation resolved.”
It’s not for lack of trying. For the past three years, SFRTA officials have been lobbying the state legislature for a dedicated funding source, proposing options such as car registration fees for all cars, title fees for new cars and car license fees.
Last year, the authority proposed that a portion of the existing car rental fee be used to fund state commuter-rail authorities. The measure passed the state’s House but never was discussed in the Senate.
“We’re trying to work with the state legislature to come up with something that’s acceptable and fair,” says Giulietti.
The dedicated funding is critical, and not just so Tri-Rail can maintain service. Without a dedicated source, the agency wouldn’t even be eligible to obtain federal funding for future projects, says Giulietti.
“If we went in front of the feds for the same Full Funding Grant Agreement we went for in the late 1990s, we wouldn’t meet today’s criteria,” he says. “You have to have the financial capacity to keep the operation going. If you have to ask for money every year, that’s not considered a dedicated fund.”
In addition, a lack of dedicated funds — and the consequences associated with it — will prevent SFRTA from carrying out its mission. In 2003, the Florida legislature transformed Tri-Rail into SFRTA, which was charged with improving mobility in south Florida. The agency’s aim? To “coordinate, develop and implement a viable regional transportation system in south Florida that endeavors to meet the desires and needs for the movement of people, goods and services,” according SFRTA.
The creation of a regional authority was prompted by a transportation summit sponsored by Tri-Rail in 2002, during which officials from the region’s airports, seaports and other transportation providers discussed how south Florida’s near-gridlock conditions were hurting their business.
“The airports and seaports said they were desperate to see mass transit become more functional. There’s a tremendous tourism and cruise business down here, and they were afraid they’d lose their competitive advantage as the area’s getting jammed with people,” says Giulietti. “When the regional business alliance heard that, they felt it was important that a regional authority be formed to deal with the transportation issues going forward.”
The three-county south Florida region is one of the densest in the country; take out the uninhabitable Everglades, and south Florida’s density is second only to New York City and Los Angeles, says Giulietti.
“And, we can’t build any more roads down here, according to the state transportation secretary,” he says. “The state couldn’t afford the land to build highways and even if they could, the cities themselves can’t absorb the overflow traffic, so the DOT has to be proactive in coming up with transportation solutions other than highways.”
SFRTA can think of a few. The agency is looking into operating service along 85 miles of a Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) mainline that runs along the seaboard between Jupiter and downtown Miami. The CSXT line over which Tri-Rail trains currently operate connects with the FECR line in West Palm Beach. The agency also could operate into south Miami-Dade County on a spur adjacent to the Miami Airport.
“Over the next 10 years, we have tremendous opportunities to respond to the needs of the ever-growing population, and to take a transportation grid network and make it function throughout the tri-county area,” says Giulietti.
The timing for SFRTA to carry out its expansion plans could be just right. Public transit’s still making headlines with its record-breaking ridership figures — despite declining gas prices — and a growing percentage of Americans are seeking environmentally friendly transportation options. In addition, the transit-rail industry is in the running to obtain a significant chunk of money for ready-to-go projects under an economic stimulus bill being considered by Congress.
If SFRTA officials can capitalize on transit rail’s popularity and obtain dedicated funding, public transportation in south Florida will be taken to a whole new level during the next 20 years, says Giulietti.
“You’ll see a regional authority similar to Chicago or New York, where there are various entities coming onboard,” he says. “You’ll have commuter rail, heavy rail, light rail systems and buses all working within these three counties.”