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As Brightline and Tri-Rail up their service games, is there a case for motorists to bid adieu to I-95?

As Brightline and Tri-Rail up their service games, is there a case for motorists to bid adieu to I-95?

Brightline says that since it added its new service to Orlando, it needs to add capacity to cope with a surge in passenger demand.

Tri-Rail has opened its long-awaited segment to downtown Miami, is welcoming legions of young riders with bicycles, and even replaced 800 windows in its coaches so passengers will have better views of the passing scenery.

Recent ridership figures from both rail lines appear to show that a growing segment of South Floridians and visitors to the region are buying into rail travel for commuting, business and pleasure. So from West Palm Beach to Miami, is now the time for motorists to garage their cars and bid adieu to Interstate 95?

“We’re beginning to observe a decrease in the number of anticipated trips on I-95 and basically our highway system,” said Gregory Stuart, executive director of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, which plots transportation policies and arranges federal funding to help build them.

But Stuart said he needs to see three consecutive years of data to know that traffic is declining or leveling out.

“Right now our goal is obviously to decrease the number of people using I-95,” he said. “If we can see the (population) growth occurring and the system levels out, then that’s progress. If we see that the system itself is having fewer vehicles, then we know we’ve had success.”

One person was injured and another person walked away after a crash between a Brightline train and a vehicle Saturday evening in Boca Raton, police said. (Marta Lavandier/Associated Press)
(AP Photo/Marta Lavandier, file)
A Brightline train approaches the Fort Lauderdale station in September, the month it started service to Orlando. The company now says it’s seeking to boost capacity due to heavy demand for trips to Central Florida as well as in South Florida. (Marta Lavandier/AP file)

County tourism promoters and economic development planners are continuing to talk up Brightline as an important emerging transportation asset for residents and visitors.

Kelly Cavers, chief sales officer for Discover the Palm Beaches, did just that last Thursday during a Fort Lauderdale conference of the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association.

Cavers, in an interview, said that when a group of conference event owners from Central Florida came to visit, “we brought them in from Orlando and they all took the train.”

“That was an easier option for them,” she said of the group, which stayed for two nights and three days.

Compelling numbers

Travelers do seem to be opting for rail more now that the COVID-19 pandemic is all but gone, executives say.

“We have definitely seen progress here, and our ridership numbers bear that out,” said David Dech, executive director of South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates Tri-Rail.

“You’re seeing it in our ridership numbers and you’re seeing it in Brightline’s ridership numbers,” Dech said told the South Florida Sun Sentinel last Thursday. “We put in a lot of effort improving the customer experience on our trains. We are by no means where we need to be. But (passengers) are either giving us a first try or another chance, and a lot of people are coming back.”

“A year and a half ago we were well out of COVID, but we were at 11,000 riders a day,” he added. “Now we are regularly over 15,000 and that’s just on the South Florida rail corridor that doesn’t take into account MiamiCentral.” The downtown Miami service started in January.

Tri-Rail Executive Director David Dech at the Tri-Rail station in Pompano Beach Station on Thursday, March 28, 2024. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Tri-Rail Executive Director and veteran railroader David Dech at the Tri-Rail station in Pompano Beach adjacent to the line’s headquarters. Since his arrival 18 months ago, he activated service to downtown Miami and has undertaken various actions to upgrade customer service. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Dech, who arrived from Austin, Texas, more than a year ago to take over Tri-Rail, achieved his board’s top priority earlier this year by finishing the activation of an east-west spur between the corridor that runs west of I-95 and into the downtown MiamiCentral station built by Brightline.

For Brightline’s part, ridership has soared since the higher speed rail line activated its 170-mile extension from West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport.

Last month, the line carried 228,138 passengers for a record average of 7,887 per day, at an average fare per passenger of $54.69, according to a recently released monthly financial report. That compared to 151,654 passengers at an average fare of $24.10 in February 2023. Ticket revenue is up 241% year over year.

“Growth trends remain strong, with March trending to be another record month,” spokesman Ben Porritt said. “We are receiving additional new passenger cars this summer to accommodate this demand.”

“Demand is going up every month,” he added. “Right now the only thing that is limiting us is capacity. In general we are definitely seeing people choosing to take the train over driving. We have seen that for a number of years in South Florida. Now we are seeing it with a different type of passenger going to and from Orlando.”

Here ae some snapshots of where the train lines stand versus car travel along the interstate.

Advantages:

Brightline: Speed and an array of customer amenities onboard the trains and in the stations. Depending on the segment, the rides between Fort Lauderdale and downtown Miami with a stop in Aventura are about 35 minutes; a little under 40 minutes to West Palm Beach with the stop in Boca Raton. The trains do not dawdle at intermediate stops, moving on in about two minutes’ time after taking on and discharging passengers.

Tri-Rail: With 18 stops between the northern terminus of Mangonia Park above West Palm Beach and its southern end point at Miami International Airport, the publicly-subsidized commuter rail line is popular among students, air travelers and low- to middle-income workers, namely for its cheap fares and trip frequencies.

I-95: You have access to your car for the entirety of the trip. There’s no need to hunt for ride shares or local shuttle services.

Pain points:

Brightline: It can be pricey whether it’s a short ride within South Florida or the inter-regional trip to and from Orlando. Fatal train-vehicle collisions as well as those involving pedestrians have plagued the railroad, which has spent millions on upgrading crossings and collaborating with local law enforcement and regulators to cut down on the incidents.

Tri-Rail: Old equipment — including aging locomotives that date back to the line’s inception more than 30 years ago — remains a reliability challenge for the commuter railroad. The company’s trains also lack the space to accommodate a daily surge of passengers who bring their bicycles. Last Thursday, according to Dech, 35 bicyclists boarded a train at one time in Boynton Beach.

Like Brightline, the line is also troubled by vehicle collisions and pedestrian deaths involving its trains. Dech said the line is working with authorities to clear out homeless camps along the rail corridor. He said he has never worked in a region with such a heavy proliferation of incidents.

I-95: Elongated traffic bottlenecks near urban centers and key intersections frustrate drivers daily. The Golden Glades Interchange in North Miami-Dade, for example, can easily slow a trip with 0 to 10 mph slowdowns, creating  20-minute waits to pass through the sector. Drivers routinely get in line to travel the flyover, which backs up traffic for up to a mile in the southbound express lanes. Choke points in Broward County include a major construction zone northwest of Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport.

With much fanfare and celebration, the first Tri-rail train arrives at the Brightline's MiamiCentral Station on Friday January 12, 2024. The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) held a special ceremony to celebrate the start of Tri-Rail service into Downtown Miami .(Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Amid fanfare, the first Tri-Rail train arrives at MiamiCentral Station in January, makin it possible for the commuter line’s customers to use the South Florida Regional Transportation commuter line to reach downtown Miami. (SFRTA) held a special ceremony to celebrate the start of Tri-Rail service into downtown Miami.(Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Costs:

Brightline: Anecdotally, some riders have expressed feelings of sticker shock when they see one-way prices of $49 posted for rides between Fort Lauderdale and Miami on the company booking website. Prices depend on the time of day and whether a customer picks the line’s “Smart” or Premium” class of service. The site, for example, shows one-way trips April 1 from Fort Lauderdale to Miami at $29 and $49 in the early morning, and from $44 to $64 for a later time.

But management is churning out a slew of deals and discounts for trips to Orlando, as well as for sporting and other entertainment events in South Florida. The company has struck agreements with several hundred South Florida employers to provide monthly corporate passes. “Flash sales” are also in vogue. The company, for example, has been offering a one-way $39 “Smart” fare to Orlando from Boca Raton and West Palm Beach, which is roughly 50% off.

Tri-Rail. While slower than Brightline, it’s cheaper. But the line is not an inter-city, regional train line offering upscale amenities such as onboard food service staffed by attendants and upscale restaurants and bars at its stations  The line uses a pricing system spread over six zones, with the cost for a one-way trip ranging from $2.50 to $8.75,. with the price depending on the number of zones a passenger traverses. On weekends, Tri-Rail offers $5 rides to anywhere in the system  It offers discounts for children 5-12, the disabled, senior citizens 65 and over, as well as employee discounts.

I-95: Gasoline (for those not driving all-electric vehicles), car maintenance and insurance are the leading costs for motorists who drive the north-south route through South Florida for work and/or pleasure. In Fort Lauderdale,  the average price of regular gas was $3.673 per gallon on Friday, according to AAA. In Miami, it was $3.607; in Boca Raton / West Palm Beach, $3.786.

Travel times

Brightline: From downtown Fort Lauderdale to Miami via Aventura; roughly 35 to 38 minutes. To West Palm Beach via Boca Raton, closer to 40 minutes. The trains pause for no longer than two minutes at the intermediate stops.

To Orlando, the ride from West Palm Beach is an estimated two hours. The trip between Orlando and Miami is three hours and 30 minutes.

Tri-Rail: It’s 54 minutes between West Palm Beach and the Fort Lauderdale station on Broward Boulevard, according to a published schedule. It’s 51 minutes from Fort Lauderdale to Miami International Airport.

The ride from Fort Lauderdale to downtown Miami via the cross-county spur is just over an hour via a transfer station. From West Palm Beach, it’s two hours and five minutes.

I-95: On a good day without accidents and tie-ups, it could take 40 to 45 minutes from downtown Fort Lauderdale to downtown Miami, and perhaps a little longer to West Palm Beach.  But on a recent day marred by a morning rainstorm, it took a reporter nearly an hour-and-a-half to drive from Fort Lauderdale to downtown Miami.  A key obstruction: A tie-up at the infamous Golden Glades Interchange, which took 20 minutes to navigate at 0 to 10 mph.

Ground transportation/parking

Brightline: The company oversees a network of ground transportation options within 1   to 5 miles of its stations. In Miami-Dade County, Metro-Rail and Metro Mover rail services are available near MiamiCentral.

Parking garages are available within a short walking distance of the downtown stations in West Palm Beach, Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale.

Tri-Rail: The Miami-Dade rail and bus services are within easy walking distance of MiamiCentral. Local bus and shuttle services are available to ride to and from the stations in  Broward and Palm Beach counties.

In Pompano Beach. the station’s parking garage is free, although management does not want cars staying for more than 24 hours.

I-95: At $16 to $36 a day, downtown Miami parking for commuters can reach the price of a Brightline ticket, and exceed the cost of a Tri-Rail ticket, according to the parking reservation website SpotHero. Weekend parking can range from $15 to $35.

The outlook

Dech, the Tri-Rail executive director, said he’s been impressed by the speed at which the developmental process has moved with the plans for the proposed commuter rail service envisioned by the three counties.

“I am amazed at the progress that’s being made, and the funding that’s coming in from Washington.” he said. “Something that I think was a pipe dream a long time ago is most definitely a reality, The speed at which Miami-Dade and Broward are working is very impressive and it’s very optimistic in the future to be in rail.”

Stuart, of Broward’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, said that both Brightline and Tri-Rail “seem to be working at premium levels.”

And he believes the public will embrace a third commuter rail line being proposed for the Florida East Coast Railway corridor now used by Brightline and  where multiple stations could ultimately emerge to serve local commuters in each of the three counties.

“Overall the indicators are pointing in the right direction,” he said.

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