Tri-Rail ridership skyrockets while some local expressways see less-dramatic decrease in traffic
By Risa Polansky
For months, public transportation ridership has climbed by double-digit percentages locally, probably in response to high gas prices and a weak economy.
The shift has thinned traffic on some local expressways, though not as dramatically as transit ridership has jumped.
Tri-Rail last week posted its second-highest ridership day in the system's nearly 20-year history: 17,241 riders rode the trains Sept. 18.
The only single day more riders used the service was June 23, 2006, when a downtown Miami parade celebrated the Miami Heat's NBA championship victory.
Thus far, September's weekday ridership is tracking 33.2% above September 2007.
Also this month, Tri-Rail is averaging more than 16,100 passengers on weekdays, the highest monthly average ever, spokesman Bonnie Arnold said.
In August, Tri-Rail weekday ridership was up 30% from August 2007.
"The whole industry is seeing tremendous growth," said Joseph Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which runs Tri-Rail.
Transit ridership in Miami-Dade has been climbing, though data are not as up to date.
In June, Metrorail ridership was up 11.5% over June 2007.
During the same period, Metrobus ridership jumped 6.4% and Metromover 1.5%.
June data are the most recent Miami-Dade Transit has now, spokesman John Labriola said.
David Clodfelter, chief of budget, audit and reporting, attributed the delay in statistics to a lengthy auditing process.
"Ridership data is extracted from bus fare boxes and turnstile readings, which are tabulated at the end of the month and then audited for accuracy, which includes reconciling fare-box data with revenue that comes in," he said in an e-mail.
A planned automated fare-collection system is designed to change that.
"The new EASY Card automated fare collection system that will be implemented over the next several months will greatly reduce the time it takes to produce ridership reports while increasing their accuracy," he said. "Data will be available immediately by means of electronic passenger counters."
The regional Tri-Rail system already tabulates daily data.
More than 17,000 passengers traveled Monday, Ms. Arnold said.
Tri-Rail runs from Palm Beach County to Miami-Dade and serves commuters within the tri-county area.
Many who make the commute in their cars travel Florida's Turnpike.
Average Turnpike traffic counts at three Miami-Dade toll plazas dropped this summer by 3.8% to 8.8%.
An average of about 3.6 million drivers passed through the Bird Road plaza in June and July of 2007. That number fell by 8.8% to about 3.3 million the same time this year.
At the Golden Glades toll plaza, an average of about 2.2 million drivers passed in June and July of last year. This summer, traffic decreased 6.2% to about 2 million drivers.
The change at the Homestead toll plaza was less dramatic: a 3.8% drop in drivers in June and July of this year compared to last.
"We have noted a [system-wide] dip of about 4% in traffic and revenue to the Turnpike between fiscal year 2007 and fiscal year 2008," which ended in June, said spokesman Sonyha Rodriguez-Miller.
But it's mostly truckers, not necessarily commuters, that have caused the change on the 460 miles of roadway, she said.
She attributed about 3% of the dip in revenue to fewer trucks on the road, and the other 1% to more participants in the SunPass program, which allows members to pay less for tolls.
"In terms of passenger cars, it's been flat," Ms. Rodriguez-Miller said.
Still, fiscal 2008 was the first year in the roadway system's 50-year history that traffic counts and revenue didn't rise.
"Every year, the trend has been up — a higher number of vehicles, higher revenue," she said. "This is the first time where we see a dip or a flat."
Increased transit ridership does not have much impact on Miami-Dade Expressway Authority roadways, said spokesman Cindy Polo, as most of the local public transportation systems run north-south, and the authority's highways run east-west.
Still, she said last month, "we have noticed a from 2% to 4% decline, but it's not during peak hours… people aren't driving as much if they don't have to."
And, as they are on the Turnpike, more expressway drivers are using SunPass, she added.
Illustrating the dip in leisure traffic, holiday travel on the Turnpike was also down, with 10% fewer drivers this Memorial Day than last, Ms. Rodriguez-Miller said. Fourth of July saw a nearly 5% dip.
"You could take that as a reflection of the overall economy," she said. "I think those numbers tend to indicate that that's the case."
Travel organization AAA observed the same, a trend officials attributed to the economy.
Pre-holiday surveys this summer showed fewer drivers nationwide planned to travel.
After dips over both Fourth of July and Memorial Day weekends, a national phone survey of more than 2,000 people showed the number who planned to travel by car in the Southeast over Labor Day weekend this month dropped by .8%.
"What we've found from the last three surveys… is that the travel projections for this year is less than what we've seen in the previous year," spokesman Gregg Laskoski said.
He attributed the change to high gas prices, as well as increased food and necessities costs.
"People are realizing they're still paying a lot more, and they've paid a lot more all year long," he said. "Even though we did have a significant number of travelers, it was down slightly. Some of the discretionary travel that might have existed before — they're making more of an effort to consolidate errands."
With fewer drivers on the road, 511 — a travel information service by the Florida Department of Transportation — has seen a dip in calls, said spokesman Vicky Mixson.
In July, 148,724 calls came in from South Florida, she said. In August, that dropped to 140,442.
These numbers are down from 152,003 calls in July 2007 and 158,550 in August of last year.
As more drivers use the 511 Web site, it may negate the need for them to call as frequently or at all, contributing to the drop in calls, Ms. Mixson said.
But in general, "there are fewer drivers out there… it kind of stands to reason that would be a contributing factor to a reduction in phone calls."
Local Florida Department of Transportation officials also say drops in traffic could be attributed to more than simply a single factor.
The department reports annual daily traffic averages by collecting data once a year for three days, with some data stations that collect information continuously, said District Statistics Administrator Jennifer Barrow.
Whether gas prices and increased public transit ridership have affected local traffic is "something that we wouldn't see or know until next year," she said last month.
In general, though, "the traffic patterns follow the same pattern, just at a slightly reduced volume."
Spokesman Brian Rick said it's difficult to attribute the volume change to any one factor, such as gas prices.
"It is highly speculative."