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Editorial: Palm Beach County should consider surtax to add commuter trains on Brightline tracks

The Palm Beach Post logo The Palm Beach Post 6/16/2021 The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
a person standing in front of a building: A man crosses the Florida East Coast Railway tracks outside the empty Brightline station before dawn Thursday, March 26, 2020. Brightline announced Wednesday they were suspending all service until further notice to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Freight trains will still be using the tracks however. [LANNIS WATERS/palmbeachpost.com] © Lannis Waters, The Palm Beach Post A man crosses the Florida East Coast Railway tracks outside the empty Brightline station before dawn Thursday, March 26, 2020. Brightline announced Wednesday they were suspending all service until further notice to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Freight trains will still be using the tracks however. [LANNIS WATERS/palmbeachpost.com]

To see Palm Beach County's future, one need only look south, where Miami-Dade and Broward county residents suffer daily from urban growth that outpaced planning. The congestion on I-95 turns rush hour into an oxymoron.

But in one respect, emulating the counties to our south would be a smart move.

In the face of their ill-controlled growth, both counties have launched projects to establish commuter train service, with local stops, on the coast-hugging FEC rail right-of-way currently reserved for freight trains and Brightline's higher-speed inter-city expresses.

Palm Beach County should do the same.

A comfortable commuter line, a mile or so east of Tri-Rail's tracks, along the densely populated coastal corridor, would relieve the Interstate and downtown West Palm Beach of car traffic as Palm Beach County grows. It would encourage a transit culture that spares commuters the stress and danger of daily driving and the expense of car maintenance. And the line's WiFi and other modern conveniences could turn commuting into productive time.

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Though Miami-Dade and Broward put drivers through years of torture by waiting too long to act, Palm Beach has the chance to ease its traffic before it reaches crisis levels.

The challenge is to create a funding source for the additional rails, safety systems and maintenance costs the project requires. In this key respect, we've fallen behind Miami-Dade and Broward, which have dedicated sources of revenue for commuter rail — transit surtaxes.

We don't have that levy. But the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency (TPA) is recommending it as a logical and relatively painless solution for us.

As The Post reported May 26, Executive Director Nick Uhren and other planners propose that when the penny sales tax approved for infrastructure projects sunsets in 2026, it can be replaced with a transportation surtax. One penny out of the seven taken for sales tax would be dedicated to major projects such as commuter rail.

Our existing commuter line, Tri-Rail, would gladly operate on the FEC right-of-way in addition to its current Mangonia Park-to-Miami stretch along the more westerly CSX tracks.

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Tri-Rail proves there's demand for commuter trains in Palm Beach County, says Steven Abrams, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which runs Tri-Rail. While most of the 30 commuter rail services operating in the U.S. remain at 10% to 20% of the ridership they had before the pandemic, Tri-Rail has quickly chugged back up to 50% — 60% on weekends. It carries 8,000 riders a day now, aiming to return to the 15,000 riders it carried pre-COVID, Abrams says. He estimates Tri-Rail takes the equivalent of one lane of traffic off I-95 every day.

Already, plans call for Tri-Rail trains to cross eastward and connect with the FEC tracks north of downtown West Palm Beach, for commuter service as far north as Riviera Beach, Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter. Abrams also envisions a stretch heading west to the VA Medical Center on Blue Heron Boulevard and beyond.

a person standing next to a train: A Brightline train is surrounded by police tape after a pedestrian was hit and killed in Delray Beach on Sept. 5, 2019. Authorities said she apparently died by suicide. © Lannis Waters, The Palm Beach Post A Brightline train is surrounded by police tape after a pedestrian was hit and killed in Delray Beach on Sept. 5, 2019. Authorities said she apparently died by suicide.

Similarly, the link from West Palm southward to Delray Beach, Boca Raton and into Broward would put local trains where many people live and work. It's easy to imagine that commuter rail on the FEC line would do well, its stations taking riders within walking distance of downtown offices and restaurants. Farther south, the local trains could connect to Tri-Rail's existing service to Miami International Airport and eventually downtown Miami. A slower, stop-and-go ride but half the price of Brightline.

Meanwhile, Brightline would continue its faster, more luxurious express service along its present FEC route, benefiting from right-of-way fees from the counties.

The company recently celebrated the halfway mark to completing its link from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to Orlando, where it hopes to start higher-speed service by the end of next year. It's negotiating with the state over its route from there to Tampa, mainly along the I-4 corridor. 

a train traveling down train tracks near a forest: Gravel is deposited along new railroad tracks next to Alternate A1A in Palm Beach Beach Gardens Wednesday, March 10, 2021. © Lannis Waters, LANNIS WATERS/PALM BEACH POST Gravel is deposited along new railroad tracks next to Alternate A1A in Palm Beach Beach Gardens Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

But commuter rail service for South Florida is even closer to reality.

In Miami-Dade it's just over the horizon. Broward is wrestling with how the trains would cross New River without the drawbridge blocking boat traffic much of the day. In Palm Beach, construction could start in as little as a year.

Abrams says he's hopeful Washington will provide infrastructure dollars to help. The nation's conductor, he notes, goes by the moniker "Amtrak Joe."

The question for Palm Beach County is whether local voters would consider a transit surtax a drawbridge too far. They shouldn't. South Florida grows more densely populated by the day. Modern, interconnected train systems can help make that growth work for us.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Editorial: Palm Beach County should consider surtax to add commuter trains on Brightline tracks

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