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Tri-Rail Weighs Using Capital Revenue to Avoid Service Cuts

Hoping to avoid derailing its federal assistance, the panel that oversees the Tri-Rail commuter train in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties will meet Friday in Pompano Beach to consider switching tracks on its 2009-2010 budget

The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority is scheduled to consider an amended version of the budget it passed last month that would use funds normally reserved for building and maintaining tracks and stations for operations so that its trains can keep running at full strength. The previously approved plan, which would eliminate half its current 60 trains per day and cut weekend or holiday service altogether, could cause the system to default on a $256 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration that was used for a double tracking project completed in 2006.

Prior to the approval of the service cutting budget, SFRTA chairman and Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion said the FTA agreement with Tri-Rail required at least 48 trains per day, at 20 minute intervals.
But the SFRTA said that the deeper service cuts, which are expected to begin in October and would allow the system to continue to operate for 18 months, were 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.

However, SFRTA spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold told the News Service that the panel is now considering using $2.6 million in revenue from gas tax collections in the counties Tri-Rail serves that would normally go to its capital budget to compliment the $1.567 million it will receive from the three counties for operations. The money would then be matched by the Department of Transportation, she said, temporarily solving Tri-Rail's two biggest problems.

"If that happens, we'll be running trains as long as we can and it will give us more time to go back to the Legislature for a dedicated funding source and we won't be in default," Arnold said.

But it is far from certain that Tri-Rail's wheels will not be squeaking come Friday, Arnold admitted. The SFRTA could also stick with the budget it already approved, at which point the panel would immediately have to notify the FTA about the cuts and the federal authority would have 90 days to decide whether to take legal action.

"The FTA has been as supportive as they can possibly be, but once it goes into default, it goes to the Department of Justice and it would have to Congress," Arnold said. "It's not a pretty picture."

A third option for Friday's meeting is for nothing to happen at all. If there isn't a quorum, Tri-Rail could go into its new fiscal year beginning July 1 with no budget plan. But that is not a likely destination, Arnold said.

"I think it could go either way," Arnold said about the prospects of the amended budget being approved or the previously approved version being upheld. "We're all on pins and needles waiting for Friday to happen, as are our passengers, who are aware of what's happening."

Also waiting to see what happens with the Tri-Rail funding situation is state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who pushed the Legislature to approve the Tri-Rail rental car surcharge by tacking it onto the proposed SunRail commuter rail in Orlando. The coupling of plans was an attempt by SunRail backers tried to woo South Florida lawmakers, but it went down in defeat with seven senators who represent parts of the three Tri-Rail counties voting no.

Ring said his plan would have been better for the long-term viability of Tri-Rail, but since it was not approved, using capital funding may be the best alternative left this summer.

"Obviously we wish we had the rental surcharge," Ring said in an interview. "In the absence of having that, we need to have Tri-Rail. Fifteen thousand people use it everyday."

But Ring said getting a dedicated funding source for Tri-Rail from the Legislature will be his top priority next year, whether or not the system is forced to cut service this year. Ring said he will file the rental car surcharge as a separate bill this year.

"We need to get some stability," he said. "It was a great opportunity that we really missed. I don't want anyone using the excuse 'why didn't they file a separate bill?' so we're taking away that excuse next year."

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