Fort Lauderdale’s Proposed Light Rail System: “The Wave”. Will it cause a major “Train Wreck” in our future?
Posted Under: Eco-Friendly "Green" Suggestions,Economic Improvement Suggestions,Ft Lauderdale City Budget Issues,Ft Lauderdale Development Issues,Important Issues for Fort Lauderdale,Neighborhood Issues
By now, most of you have read or heard about the proposed Light Rail System that the Downtown Development Authority or DDA (composed solely of a group of wealthy downtown Fort Lauderdale property owners) is pushing hard to get approved. It’s called “The Wave”. Having lived in San Francisco for 20 years and ridden that & other cities’ light rail systems around the world, I can attest to the value that these light rail systems can provide to core urban areas.
The folks at the DDA have been promoting the “Wave” as a way for people to get out of their cars (reducing carbon emissions). It will supposedly attract new businesses and residents to downtown, and will connect various points of interest within the City. They compare the “Wave” to the successful Portland Streetcar Project. Unfortunately, they are comparing “apples to oranges”. There is much that has not been disclosed about the “Wave”.
First, a quick background of light rail systems:
Many US cities have implemented Light Rail systems to enhance their core downtown area. These systems generally are implemented for one or more of these three reasons:
1. To relieve inner-city congestion.
2. To assist tourists and residents easily get from one inner-city “Destination” (or point of interest) to another.
3. To compliment and enhance an existing Regional Transportation System that already has wide-spread usage.
IMPORTANT: Cities that can address all three of these reasons for a light rail system will have a popular and well-used system; those cities that are unable to address these three requirements will have nothing more than an expensive, unused toy that cost local taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
But one thing is constant: Whether used or not, these light rail systems increase the value of the properties along that system, anywhere from 35% to over 75% immediately after the system is completed, making those who own property alongside the light rail system wealthier. Where would “The Wave” be built? Mostly within the domain of the DDA (downtown Fort Lauderdale). So now you can see why the members of the DDA are pushing so hard for this: They want to see the value of their properties rise.
Now, although there is nothing wrong with the DDA wanting to increase their property values, using O.P.M. (Other People’s Money) to do this doesn’t seem right to me. If they want to fund it themselves, fine. I’d love to see a light rail system installed here in Fort Lauderdale that doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything. But when they want taxpayers to fund almost 90% of the initial project cost and 70% of the annual operating costs, it seems that we need to more carefully scrutinize what we would be getting for our tax dollar. Here is where the money for the supposed $124 Million dollar “Wave” project (some call it the “Loop to Nowhere”) would come from:
-Federal funding (meaning US taxpayer money): $62 Million
-State funding (State taxpayer money): $31 Million
-City of Fort Lauderdale funding (meaning your property tax bill will go up): $11 Million
-Additional assessments on downtown residences, (on top of those property tax increases): About $5 Million
-Assessments on downtown Commercial property & land (monies which would come primarily from the wealthy property owners of the DDA): About $15 Million.
Because so much public money is being proposed for this project, we should be asking our City and County Commissioners: “Are we the taxpayer being served by the “Wave?” Look at the proposed cost per mile for the “Wave”: It is $50 million dollars per mile. According to the National Alliance of Public Transportation Advocates (www.napta.net), the cost should be about $10 million dollars per mile. Why should the “Wave” cost five times as much? You need to ask your Commissioner this question, as it will be YOUR money that funds this. (And when was the last time you ever heard of any public project being completed on time and within budget?) Expect cost over runs here as dozens of individuals and special interest groups will line up with their hand out, wanting a piece of the construction pie…
Besides the cost factor, there are other reasons to be wary of the “Wave”. Remember the three data points that would determine the success of a light rail system?
Reason 1: “To relieve inner-city congestion”. Walk or drive along the route proposed by the “Wave”. From the intersection of NW 6th Street and NE 3rd Avenue, west over to Andrews, then south to Las Olas, over the New River and south along either Andrews or 3rd Avenue to Broward Medical Center. Where’s the congestion? There isn’t any, even at peak commute times. But one thing’s for sure. If the “Wave” is installed along these streets, there will be congestion as drivers will have to navigate around the light rail vehicles that will be sharing the road with them. The “Wave” will actually cause congestion, not relieve it.
Reason 2: “To assist tourists and residents get from one inner city Destination (or point of interest) to another.” All successful tourist cities have “Destinations”, or places for residents and tourists to go and spend money. (Go to http://abetterftlauderdale.com/?p=8 to see why we need to focus more on developing “Destinations” for our City.) And light rail systems in general are great at going from one inner-city destination to another. Now look at the route for the “Wave” project. It does go through Las Olas (our only true Destination in Fort Lauderdale), but the start of the line is an empty lot/used car dealership, and the end of the line is the Broward General Medical Center. Neither would be classified by any knowledgeable person as a “point of interest”. The Sun Trolley system already serves our one Destination, Las Olas, yet serves less than 100 riders a day. No rational person would see the “Wave” as helping people go from one inner-city destination to another, so this justification fails the smell test.
Reason 3: “To compliment and enhance an existing Regional Transportation System that already has wide-spread usage.” Fort Lauderdale has never been part of a successful regional transportation system. Tri-Rail is difficult to access and by most accounts is an expensive failure. Broward County’s bus system is spotty and used sporadically. Face it: Our city has been built around the automobile. A 2.7 mile stand-alone light rail system through downtown will do nothing to help get people out of their cars to use mass transit. There is nothing “green” about the “Wave” except for the huge number of “greenbacks” it will cost us, the taxpayers.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a number of examples of successful light rail systems, but all satisfy the three reasons listed above. Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia all have systems that have reduced congestion, linked inner-city destinations and are part of a larger regional transportation system. They all have ridership in the hundreds of thousands a day.
The “Wave” supporters tout Portland’s streetcar system and compare the “Wave” to theirs. But they fail to mention that Portland’s system is part of a larger 44 mile “Tri-met” regional transportation system, composed of integrated bus, light rail, commuter rail and street car systems that connect the 28 cities and suburbs around Portland. They also fail to mention that Portland’s street car system is free to riders in the downtown core area. (Probable ridership fares for the Wave’s 2+ mile “Loop to Nowhere” would be $1.25 per ride)
There are many more light rail failures: Tampa (a city much larger than us) has a 2.3 mile system with a ridership rate of under 1,000 people a day. Little Rock (a city roughly the same size as ours) has a 2 mile system with a ridership of less than 340 people per day. Kenosha Wisconsin has a 2 mile system with less than 200 people riding it per day.
The “Wave” would need to carry 6,000 riders a day to break even. Given that our Sun Trolley carries less than 100 people a day tells me that this project, (like many others proposed by special interest groups), will end up being subsidized by the taxpayer, with the only benefit going to the wealthy downtown property interests.
Do we need a 2.7 mile light rail “Loop to Nowhere” for the benefit of wealthy downtown property owners? Absolutely not. What we do need (and thank you to Congressman Ron Klein for his efforts here), is to move our existing Tri-Rail system over to the FEC (Florida East Coast Railway) tracks, which go through downtown Fort Lauderdale and along side the current Broward County bus hub. (Go to: http://klein.house.gov/?sectionid=57&itemid=725 for more on his efforts.)
If we can help Congressman Klein do this, it would establish a usable and much needed commuter link between Miami and Palm Beach, with Fort Lauderdale being a prime beneficiary. Instead of a few wealthy downtown business interests benefitting, many of Fort Lauderdale’s neighborhoods and their residents would benefit, including Middle River Terrace, Imperial Point, Brentwood Estates, Lake Ridge, Flagler Village, Victoria Park, our downtown Government Center, and South Andrews Business District. The Riverwalk and Himmarshee would blossom with new businesses as the new commuter line would be right there, bringing passengers from Palm Beach and Miami. It would also benefit the City of Wilton Manors and Oakland Park. And since this line runs right next to our airport, it would enable us to go to the airport without using gas-powered vehicles. We could also travel to Miami or Palm Beach without getting on I-95. How’s that for fuel savings?
Once this commuter link is established (which would then better utilize our existing bus network), ONLY THEN should we discuss establishing a light rail system. But why (as the current “Wave” proposal shows) would we want the “Wave” to parallel the FEC tracks, only blocks away? Rather than north & south, future light rail lines should be running east and west, connecting downtown to the beach and other future destination points out west. Then we would start to see a great regional transportation system that would benefit us all.
So what do we do with the “Wave” (or the “Loop to Nowhere”?)
First, we should politely tell the wealthy DDE members: “If you want it, fine; you pay for it. But pay for all of it” Second, tell your elected representative to ask the tough financial questions about this project. Why should it cost 5 times the average cost per mile? Why aren’t we putting our resources behind Congressman Klein’s efforts to get Tri-Rail moved over to the downtown tracks first before we start worrying about the “Wave”? Finally, ask yourself: Who does the “Wave” really serve? Would you regularly ride it? You soon realize that the only group the “Wave” really serves is the DDA who has been pushing to get it implemented. They will benefit financially. The rest of us will be paying for it for years to come.
It seems logical that any rational City or County Commissioner would put the brakes on this project. Think again. Most of our elected City and County representatives have received significant political contributions from the folks in the DDA. It’s payback time now. Go to: http://www.ddaftl.org/governance.asp to see a listing of just the board members of this group. If you were to go to the financial treasurer’s reports of many of our elected Commissioners, you’ll find the same names listed as major donors. So you can expect this project to be approved without much public input, unless you decide to express your feelings to your Commissioner. If you don’t object now, you’ll have no one but yourself to blame later.
For a useful and educational document about the good and bad of Urban Transit Systems in general, read a study from Jonathan Richmond, from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University:
(http://the-tech.mit.edu/~richmond/professional/wholesys.pdf). A notable quote from his very well-written document: “…we have to remove ourselves from an obsession with technology and move instead to an art that appears to have been lost in public transport: the study of needs as the starting point of inquiry. Instead of asking if a light rail project is feasible when we discover an abandoned right-of-way, we must ask who our clients are, and from there proceed to study how they may best be served”.
So just who will be served with the “Wave”? I see an expensive “Train Wreck” coming.