Tri-Rail Asks for $10 Million
Seeking to avoid planned service cuts for the Tri-Rail commuter train in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties that could derail the beleaguered system's federal assistance, the panel that oversees its operation asked Gov. Charlie Crist and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos Friday for a ticket to sustainability.
During the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority's Friday meeting, chairman and Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion asked the governor and the Department of Transportation for $10 million to keep running Tri-Rail at full strength and avoid federal bill collectors until the next Legislative session, a spokeswoman for the panel told the News Service Friday afternoon.
Prior to Friday's meeting, Eggelletion said that the Federal Transit Administration had notified the SFRTA that reducing Tri-Rail service would cause the system to violate the terms of a $256 million grant that was used for a double tracking project completed in 2006. The news came as the panel planned to consider Friday cutting half its current 60 trains per day and eliminating weekend or holiday service altogether, a plan spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold said was approved Friday anyway
The panel also directed its staff to create an amended budget that would not cut service as much before its final approval of the plan, which would be necessary at the SFRTA's next meeting to take affect in time for the new fiscal year beginning in July.
The SFRTA said earlier this month that the service cuts, which are expected to begin in October and allow the system to continue to operate for 18 months, are necessary after the defeat of a legislative plan that would have allowed the counties to add a $2 surcharge to rental cars and generated more than $180 million for the system. But at Friday's meeting, Eggelletion said the FTA agreement with Tri-Rail required at 48 trains per day, at 20 minute intervals.
He added that being sued by the federal government over the FTA loan would make a bad situation worse for Tri-Rail.
"Defaulting on the FTA grant would jeopardize Florida’s ability to compete with other regions or states for federal funding of future transit projects," Eggelletion said in prepared remarks for the meeting.
Eggelletion also detailed further other consequences of cutting Tri-Rail service in half, saying that salaries to system employees would be reduced by $3 million. Additionally, he said, Broward County's city of Pompano Beach would miss out on $82,000 in property tax if the tracks fell silent altogether and unemployment in the area would rise.
"At the end of those 18 months, more than 330 employees of the SFRTA and its contractors would lose their jobs if service is shut down," Eggelletion said. "Thousands more workers from the region would lose their ability to get to their place of employment, at a time when good jobs are becoming increasingly hard to find and hold."
Eggelletion told the SFRTA members that he was "cautiously optimistic" that the participating counties would not cut funding below the minimum mandated by the statue that created Tri-Rail in the late 1980s. The system is obligated by the statute that created it to receive $1.565 million from the counties and another $2.6 million from local gas tax collections. That revenue is then matched by the Florida Department of Transportation.
But that's as far as the optimism goes, Eggelletion told the authority during it's Friday meeting.
"I am pessimistic, however, about the state Legislature understanding the need for commuter rail in Florida," he said in his prepared remarks. "With additional fees imposed during the past session on everything from getting married or divorced, to registering a vehicle, to obtaining a fishing license, it makes no sense that a $2 fee to support the SFRTA failed to pass."
Eggelletion said the issue that caused the Legislature to not approve the additional funding for Tri-Rail was broader than the plan's linkage to the proposed SunRail Orlando commuter train, which was also defeated.
"The state is increasingly shifting funding responsibility to the locals and the locals are going broke," he told the authority.
But Eggelletion admitted during the meeting that the SFRTA had little choice but to continue trying to sway lawmakers.
"We look forward to working with the members of the state House and Senate to rectify the problem of securing Tri-Rail and to resolving this long-existing need for dedicated funding," he said.
A spokesman for Gov. Crist said late Friday that is likely the only option the SFRTA has if it hopes for state help with Tri-Rail.
"We look forward to reviewing any request from Tri-Rail and working with the DOT," Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey told the News Service. "Right now we're focused on the state budget the governor will be signing within the next week. I'm not sure what options the governor has (to help Tri-Rail). The Legislature is the appropriations arm of government in Florida."
Department of Transportation spokesperson Dick Kane agreed that without future action from the Legislature, Tri-Rail's request for funding help was likely at the end of the line. Kane added that the DOT was facing a budget crunch of its own.
"It would be difficult for the department to do that considering that we're currently working on the impact of the Legislature's sweep of $160 million from the Transportation Trust Fund and redirecting it to the general revenue," Kane told the News Service. "We face billions of dollars in cash reductions since the beginning of the fiscal year last July 1 due to decreased revenue coming to the trust fund."