The news that the Tri-Rail commuter rail service may be forced to significantly reduce its services and possibly shut down altogether by 2011 is disconcerting.
This important mode of regional public transportation is faced with these dismal prospects because the Florida Legislature did not find a dedicated source to fund the railway. In addition, the three counties which were originally supposed to provide support funding, cannot continue the kind of support that will ensure the railway’s viability.
What makes the news more alarming is that the possibility of Tri-Rail’s demise comes at a time when it is providing service to a larger number of South Floridians. The railway is currently serving some 14,000 riders daily, compared to 7,500 in 2005. However, neither the increase in passengers nor a recent 25 percent increase in passenger fares is enough to sustain its operations.
Tri-Rail was never designed to operate on its own revenue source. From it was created some 20 years ago, the plan was that it would be subsidized by the three counties it serves.
With the counties’ increasing budget challenges, the $7 million each planned to provide annually have dipped to $4.2 million, leaving the railway with an annual deficit of some $9 million.
Twice the Florida Legislature has been asked to support the railway, and twice the Legislature has failed. In 2006 a submission was made by Tri-Rail operators to the Florida Legislature to impose a $2 surcharge on car rentals to fund the railway. However, strong opposition from organizations like the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association pushed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who never showed much support for this proposal, to veto the bill. In the recently concluded Legislative session, Tri-Rail was depending on the Legislature to provide a dedicated source of funding, but this never materialized.
It is apparent that the significance of Tri-Rail on South Florida’s economy is lost on county commissioners and the Florida Legislature. As gas prices jumped over $4 a gallon last year, more South Floridians found Tri-Rail a significant alternative to commuting by car.
Millions of dollars have been saved by motorists commuting on Tri-Rail, money that has been spent in other key areas in the regional economy. Moreover, Tri-Rail services are an indirect boost to the region’s employment. Hundreds of Tri-Rail commuters find it possible to commute to jobs within the Tri-County rather than traveling by bus or car, especially when they do not own cars. TriRail provides the only convenient, dedicated North to South mode of public transportation linking all three counties, and is ideally placed to serve commuters who can access the railway by the several east to west thoroughfares that make up the Tri-County road map.
It is difficult to envisage how the region’s commissions and the Florida Legislature can allow the only rail service that serve the region to go out of business. What kind of metropolis would South Florida be without a strong, reliable rail commuter system? One of the considerations that executives and staff of companies take when relocating business operations to a new region is the reliability of its public transportation.
Tri-Rail has been providing valuable service to the residents of Palm Beach and Broward County working in Miami-Dade. Allowing the railway to close will weaken one of the positive factors that enable companies to source valuable employees, and for valuable companies to relocate to South Florida.
It is hoped that South Florida civic and business leaders will initiate strong lobbying efforts to influence county commissioners and the state Legislature to do something about funding Tri-Rail.
The Republican-majority Florida Legislature has been extremely stubborn about raising taxes to provide key services to Floridians. Public services like education and health that serve the middle class and poor are required to endure severe challenges because Republicans are weary of increasing taxes. Granted, no one likes paying more taxes, but there are times, as currently exist, when citizens must pay more taxes if they need continued, improved or new services from government.
There are signs, however, that the state’s government may be realizing that to balance the residents’ demands with its resources, taxes must be increased. Governor Crist did not veto the recently imposed cigarette taxes, as promised.
Similarly, there are other areas where taxes can be raised to adequately fund education and services like Tri-Rail. It’s just a matter of the state Legislature, and county commissioners taking a serious, objective analysis of the situation. The matter of imposing a surcharge on car rentals should be revisited, or for example, imposing a tax on so-called elitist liquor – champagne, whiskey, bourbon, etc. can be considered. There are funding sources to save Tri-Rail, and they must be tapped.