Why Buy More Trains If You Can’t Afford to Run Them?

Down in balmy South Florida, D-Day is approaching for riders of the the
popular Tri-Rail transit system. A looming $18 million shortfall has
forced the Tri-Rail board to approve a budget that slices daily service and stops all trains by 2011 — although ridership has doubled since 2005.

tri_rail.jpgTri-Rail trains like these could stop running by 2011. (Photo: National Corridors Initiative)

Tri-Rail’s
troubles are largely attributable to the bad economy, which has clipped
the amount that the network’s three participating counties can
contribute to the transit system by an estimated $9 million. Making
matters worse, the county aid must be matched dollar for dollar by the
state DOT, doubling the size of that gap and forcing Tri-Rail to the
brink.

As the Palm Beach Post noted
yesterday, Tri-Rail’s request that state legislators okay a $2 rental
car tax to save transit service is hardly a politically extraordinary
one. But the Post’s editorial also reveals Washington’s role in
perversely perpetuating the funding crisis.

Here’s the rub: Tri-Rail got $16 million for new trains in the recent
stimulus bill, but none of that can cover the shortfall because federal
money generally cannot be used to cover operating costs.

Making
matters worse, the Federal Transit Administration has informed Tri-Rail
that it risks losing a crucial $256 million grant if daily service dips
below 48 trains. Meanwhile, members of Congress are requesting up to
$400 million in earmarks to extend Tri-Rail service to the northern end of Palm Beach County. What’s the use of money to lay new tracks if Tri-Rail can’t afford to run any trains?

The
simple fix for this conundrum would be allowing local transit agencies
to spend money from Washington on operating costs, an idea welcomed by
both Transportation Secretary LaHood and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Yet
the devil will be in the details, because expanding the potential uses
for federal transit aid doesn’t mean an automatic increase in the size
of that pot of federal aid — which is already illogically small.
Saving transit systems such as Tri-Rail could mean a painful trade-off
between building worthy new projects and making sure existing trains
can run on time.