Tri-Rail cuts averted, funding back on track
By Risa Polansky
Tri-Rail's record number of riders can rest easy: South Florida government officials have derailed funding threats that could have drastically reduced train service.
The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority expects to continue providing today's level of service — weekend routes and 50 daily trains — after escaping the brunt of anticipated funding cuts.
A potential $18 million loss would have meant only 20 trains a day and no weekend service.
Bracing for a tight budget next year, a Palm Beach administrator had been pushing commissioners to cut the county's Tri-Rail contribution by about $3 million, which would have left Broward and Miami to do the same in accord with a pact among the counties and the state.
The $9 million in local cuts would have meant a $9 million reduction in state matching funds, an $18 million loss.
But both Palm Beach and Broward elected officials last week ignored the recommendation, agreeing instead to a 10% funding cut, only $450,000 each.
Miami-Dade commissioners have yet to take up the issue but are expected to do the same.
"They were never even posturing making a cut," noted Joseph Giulietti, transportation authority executive director, referring to Miami-Dade commissioners..
The now-smaller cuts will bring changes but won't affect service, he said.
"What this means right now is that we can keep all 50 trains running and the weekend service running."
Dodging the major reduction also means averting a potential conflict with the Federal Transit Administration, which has required Tri-Rail to run 48 trains a day since granting $275 million toward its double-tracking project, completed in 2006.
Crises averted, officials are planning now for the more bearable cuts.
"We will absorb the $2.7 million (reduction) by freeing positions here at the agency, cutting out non-essential travel and deferring some of our capital projects," Mr. Giulietti said.
Non-essential travel includes visits to other transit agencies and trips through membership organizations.
The funding cuts may delay ordering new cars, he added, and some money earmarked for preventative maintenance could be pulled for operations.
The authority hopes for dedicated funding from the Legislature next year to avoid future problems.
Now is not the time to scrimp on train service, Mr. Giulietti said.
Ridership is up already 45% over June 2007. May saw a 25% increase, April 28% and March 22%.
More than 157 companies signed up for the authority's employer discount program in May — about 881 riders.
The program provides for a 25% discount on monthly passes.
Skyrocketing gas prices and a shaky economy have driven even those who have never used public transit to give Tri-Rail a shot.
"It's an opportunity to get people to come on out and try the system," Mr. Giulietti said. "The challenge for us is to keep them."
Another recent challenge: fitting all the new riders' cars into park-and-ride lots.
"Our biggest issue in front of us right now that everyone is complaining about is we're starting to run out of parking," he said.
The authority's 10-year capacity projections for some lots are being met in one year, and officials are actively seeking new spaces, negotiating with several cities along the Tri-Rail corridor for vacant land or alternate parking lots, Mr. Giulietti said.
Though parking has become trying at times for riders, in light of anticipated issues, "it's a great problem to have."
Miami-Dade Transit faces more severe issues.
Director Harpal Kapoor said last week he expects a $20 million shortfall in next year's budget.
County commissioners are mulling several fixes, including fare hikes.
They deferred a vote on the proposals after Mr. Kapoor's report, pleading for plans to not only close the funding gap but to ensure a voter-approved surtax is used as intended: for system expansion, not a bailout.
Said commission chair Bruno A. Barrierio: "If that can't happen I'm not going to stand by here and continue to collect that half penny."