Project won’t reduce road congestion

Florida has launched its first commuter rail service in nearly 25 years. Many hope it will bring needed relief along the congested corridor linking Jacksonville and Orlando. Unfortunately, experience suggests these hopes are closer to fantasies. Atlantans should take note or run the risk of investing in an fiscally unsustainable transit black hole.

SunRail, like a distressingly large number of public works projects, had a painful and costly birthing. The original project was expected to cost $615 million and another $432 million to buy right of way. The final cost was closer to $1.2 billion, and all the necessary right of way was not purchased. Florida Governor Rick Scott even stopped work on the project in 2011 to review what seemed like alarmingly high spending.

Many of these concerns took a back seat in the first week earlier this month when the 30-mile SunRail line opened to the public full time. With 40,000 riders during the first four days, proponents gleefully pointed out ridership was more than double forecasts of 4,300 daily riders. Trains were near capacity, and complaints were flowing in about the lack of straps for standing travelers.

But this good news is likely to be short-lived. Almost all recent transit projects see high levels of ridership at the outset. These effects are magnified for SunRail because the $2 fare has been waived for the first two weeks of operation to encourage ridership.

No one expects Sunrail to meaningfully reduce congestion either. In fact, the project’s environmental impact statement basically says the impact on congestion is zero.

While the full costs of SunRail won’t be known for years, a sobering reality check can be found three hours south with Tri-Rail, the 70-mile commuter rail system along the “Gold Coast” that links West Palm Beach to Miami.

Tri-Rail is considered a success after nearly 25 years of operation. Ridership increased 62 percent since 2002, to 4 million trips (about 2 million riders), according to the National Transit Database. More impressively, fare revenue has nearly doubled over the same period.

But this is where the good news stops. Fares cover just 21 percent of operating costs, and the service is delivered at the whopping cost of $13.88 per trip. Operating costs increased at twice the rate of ridership and 50 percent faster than revenue between 2002 and 2012. Thus, Tri-Rail has become less financially sustainable over time as each new passenger has cost more to serve than the revenue the traveler generated.

Commuter rail in Atlanta is likely to fare much worse. While the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metropolitan area, with a population of 5.8 million people in 2013, is slightly larger than the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell metropolitan area, the Miami metro area is one of the nation’s densest urbanized areas. Densities rise as high as 18,000 people per square mile within a few miles of downtown.

The Atlanta metro area, in contrast, has one of the nation’s lowest regional densities with just 2,173 people per square mile. Densities peak at slightly more than 8,000 people per square mile—slightly higher than the density for the entire Miami metro area — within a mile of downtown, but drop to less than 4,000 people per square mile within five miles.

A better and more cost-effective strategy for Atlanta as well as Florida’s burgeoning metropolitan areas would be to invest in flexible and adaptive bus systems such as Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT. Experience in the US and abroad has shown that BRT can provide transit service comparable to rail — in travel time as well as comfort — for a much lower cost. Bus systems can also be adapted more easily to changing residential, employment and travel patterns.

Policymakers in both states would fare much better by focusing on these less expensive and adaptable alternatives than continuing to support costly and inappropriate rail projects that ignore contemporary travel preferences and raise costs.