Is high Tri-Rail subsidy worth the cost?

By Chuck Weber

WEST PALM BEACH (WFLX)-Things may finally be getting on track for Tri-Rail. After years of uncertainty, state lawmakers now seem more willing to provide a permanent way to pay for the service. Still taxpayers will continue to shoulder the bulk of the rail line's operating costs

For the state to get federal money for high speed rail, the federal officials have indicated Florida's local transit systems must be viable long-term. There's been talk of a special session of the state legislature in December, where the agenda would include providing a permanent funding source for Tri-Rail. A two dollar rental car tax has been proposed. A special session has yet to be called.

Even with a funding source, Tri-Rail will still be heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Tuesday at a Palm Beach County Commission workshop on transportation, County Engineer George Webb told commissioners the average cost per trip on Tri-Rail is $12. Fares recover only $2.25 cents, or between 18 and 19 percent.

Webb said the 80 percent subsidy level for Tri-Rail is line with most mass transit systems around the country, including the Palm Beach County bus system, Palm Tran.

"It's amazing," exclaimed Alicia Gondi of West Palm Beach. "18 percent, that's extremely low."

But Constance Boyers, of the West Palm Beach area, said she's not surprised. "It is tantamount to tuition in schools," explained Boyers. "It only covers part of the cost."

Taxpayers we spoke with said they favor some tweaking to allow public transportation to carry more of its weight, but most said they believe mass transit should remain. "It gets more people off the roads," said Tim Schulz of West Palm Beach.

While admitting the subsidy is hefty, occasional Tri-Rail passenger Sherissa Johnson, of Lake Worth, said she believes tax money pays for plenty of items that may not be worth the cost. "This would be one of those things that's worth paying for out of tax money," asserted Johnson.