Florida's Tri-Rail loses budget battle

Posted on June 22, 2009 by METRO Staff

Following a long fight, South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) Tri-Rail officials rolled out a budget at a meeting last month that called for the reduction of service from 50 to 30 trains a day, the ending of weekend and holiday service, and an altogether shutdown of the service by early 2011.

The plan that eventually would shutter the service comes after a measure to add a $2 surcharge on rental cars, which would be used to provide a dedicated source of funding for Tri-Rail, was denied by the Florida Legislature. The current recession is further exacerbating the problem, as it has forced the county commissioners in the three counties Tri-Rail serves to find areas to cut from their budgets. Without a dedicated source of funding from the state and with their own local transit systems suffering, those commissioners are hard-pressed to find the monies necessary to fund both.

All of this comes at a time that Tri-Rail is enjoying a boom in ridership, growing its numbers from 7,500 a day in 2005 to about 14,000 a day, currently.

"We have doubled ridership since 2005. In 2006, we led commuter rail in growth by percentage and were in the top four last year," said Bonnie Arnold, spokesperson for the SFRTA. "[Ridership] has been strong and steady and people are still discovering the train and seeing that it works for them. To have it taken away is just mind boggling to all of us."

With the lack of a funding mechanism and expected cuts from the county commissioners, Tri-Rail is looking to operate with an $18 million deficit, caused by a loss of $3 million-plus per county and the $9 million in matching funds from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). After being asked by the board to present a new budget taking the $18 million loss into account, Tri-Rail officials also pointed out that it is in jeopardy of having to pay back monies - a total amount of $258 million - to the Federal Transit Administration for a double-tracking agreement that stipulated the system runs 48 trains a day in 20 minute intervals.

"If we drop back to 30 trains a day, we won't be fulfilling our agreement to the feds and, in theory, they could come back and sue for that money," Arnold said. "It's a mess. It definitely isn't paradise anymore."

Tri-Rail's struggle for a dedicated source of funding dates back to at least 2002, but has been an especially frustrating struggle since 2006, said Arnold. In that year, both the Florida House and Senate passed a bill that would provide funding for the system, but then Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the bill saying that it was a case of taxation without representation, citing the rental car surcharge would unfairly tax tourists who were not able to vote on the measure.

In 2008, a similar bill was passed by the Florida House but never made it out of committee in the Senate. This year, an amendment was attached to legislation that would have established SunRail, a similar type of commuter rail system that would have served the Central Florida region. Arnold explained that the entire legislation was shot down because of a deal with CSX Corp., which included right-of-way plus enhancements to CSX property that would be necessary to redirect some freight traffic from the existing corridor to a different corridor. 

"Some of the senators had real problems with what was negotiated with CSX and felt that it was using public dollars to enhance a private company," she said. "From what I understand, it was the most expensive purchase of a rail line in the country. So, they just voted it down."

Although Tri-Rail's board approved, by a vote of 5 to 2, the service cuts and eventual closing of the system, it requested that officials go back to the drawing board to find a way to provide service without cutting train frequencies. SFRTA Tri-Rail officials put in a $9 million request to FDOT that they said would help make that possible, however, at press time the final solution was not yet determined.


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