Tri-Rail service reduction threats overshadow recent fare hike
By Risa Polansky
Raising Tri-Rail fares for the first time in 14 years was essentially a non-event last week, with looming service reductions topping riders' and officials' list of concerns.
Only four people spoke at the hearing for the proposed across-the-board 25% increase at the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority's governing board meeting Friday — none to oppose the hike.
"The biggest concern of the people who came forward was we would not drop to 30 trains," said Joseph Giulietti, executive director of the authority, which runs Tri-Rail.
Without a dedicated revenue source for the commuter rail system, Oct. 5 could be the end of the line for Tri-Rail weekend service, and weekday service could be cut nearly in half, from 50 daily trains to about 30.
And with no devoted funding stream, the system could only maintain that level for up to two years before facing further reductions.
Even after the newly approved fare hike, "we're still faced with that," Mr. Giulietti said.
Expecting budget gaps in the upcoming fiscal year, the three counties that support the 72-mile line — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — are expected to slash Tri-Rail contributions from $4.1 million to less than $1.6 million each.
This would reduce the state's match.
To secure continued funding, Tri-Rail proponents have struggled during the ongoing legislative session to persuade lawmakers to add $2 to an existing state rental car surcharge to fund regional transportation authorities.
Last week during a Senate committee hearing, Fort Lauderdale Sen. Chris Smith was able to tack an amendment onto a bill for a proposed Central Florida commuter rail system — but Mr. Giulietti fears it won't do the job.
If the measure for the proposed SunRail line passes the full Senate with Sen. Smith's amendment intact, the three South Florida counties could impose the $2 rental car surcharge with a super-majority vote of their commissions.
It would be up to voters in 2010 to decide whether to ratify or kill the fee.
The hurdles mean it can't be counted on as a dedicated funding source, Mr. Giulietti said.
"What it would do is it would postpone for a year the funding issue."
Also, it's the only one of the Legislature's proposed new fees that would require a referendum, seemingly singling out Tri-Rail.
Mr. Giulietti flew to Tallahassee this week to continue lobbying for a more solid solution — but the legislative session is to end Friday.
The newly approved Tri-Rail fare hike, which the transportation authority board approved unanimously, was a long time coming and will not offset the larger funding issues, he said.
When the rail line upped service to 50 daily trains in 2007, board members knew they'd need to raise fares but held off in the face of the impending economic downturn.
Since then, all three counties that Tri-Rail serves have raised fares and cut routes — but Tri-Rail doesn't have routes to cut.
The new hike, which takes effect in June, takes the former $5.50 charge to travel the full line one way to $6.90.
A monthly ticket, once $80, is now $100, the same as Miami-Dade's Metrorail.
County commissioners voted in September to raise fares in Miami-Dade, taking monthly Metrorail passes from $75 to $100.
The change didn't come as smoothly as Tri-Rail's.
After pleas and complaints from some riders, commissioners debated for hours before eventually agreeing to the fare increase in a 6-5 vote.
Despite those bumps in the road, the hike hasn't caused problems since.
A Miami-Dade Transit representative was one of the four speakers during the regional transportation authority's fare hike discussion — and he came to support the proposed Tri-Rail fare increase, Mr. Giulietti said.
"It's tough times, but we're all trying to keep service going."