It’s not quite a stampede, but South Florida motorists weary of clogged highways and now, bloated gasoline prices, are warming up to Brightline and Tri-Rail as alternatives to commute to work or take in local entertainment events.
As inflation spirals and geopolitical storm clouds from the Russian invasion of Ukraine hang over Europe, a gradual shift to trains appears to be under way by South Florida commuters and leisure travelers.
Brightline, which runs north-south along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks through the urban centers of South Florida, and Tri-Rail, the longer running north-south rail line that runs along he CSX corridors mostly west of I-95, say they’re starting to notice an uptick in ridership that coincides with rising gas prices. Other rail operators around the country are seeing the same trend, according to the Rail Passengers Association, a 54-year-old advocacy group.
The commuter’s expensive grind
For years, South Florida workers who live in one county but are employed in another have soldiered through daily, sometimes harrowing commutes along I-95, Florida’s Turnpike and the Sawgrass Expressway.
Depending on the make and age of car and distances driven, those trips can easily wrack up monthly gas bills that run into the hundreds of dollars.
For a hypothetical commuter traveling a daily roundtrip between Fort Lauderdale and Miami in a car that delivers 20 miles a gallon at $4.25 a gallon, the cost could range up to $400 per month. That includes tolls ranging up to $60 for the I-95 Express lane and parking in Miami at $110.
By contrast, Brightline offers a monthly unlimited pass for $199. That monthly pass looks good compared to buying a daily ticket, which would add up to a possible $800 a month in roundtrips if a commuter traveled at the busiest, most expensive times and didn’t avail themselves of discounted tickets or pre- and post-rush hour fares.
Tri-Rail, which serves 18 stations from Mangonia Park above West Palm Beach and Miami International Airport, has a monthly pass that goes for $110. Buying those tickets a la carte would cost you up to $400 monthly for commuting between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, a trip that currently requires a transfer to Metro-Rail to get to the middle of downtown.
“We’ve seen a 250% increase in [sales of] our passes for the first part of March when compared to February,” said Vanessa Alfonso, director of Brightline’s media relations. “It could be because people are trying to find an alternative to driving their cars.”
Or, the passes can be used at any time, with no blackouts for special occasions.
“You can use this ticket for any day, any time, any weekend,” Alfonso said. “You pay that monthly rate and that’s it. You do not have blackouts with this monthly pass.”
The policy appears to be paying dividends as the rail line seeks to rebuild ridership lost during a year and a half hiatus caused by COVID-19. For the month ended February 28, Brightline carried 77,876 passengers, compared with 78,707 in February 2019, Alfonso said.
Publicist Alison Baer is an example of one of those riders. “I would say the price of gas was partly a factor,” she said on the phone from her late afternoon Brightline ride home to Miami from Fort Lauderdale on Thursday. Her employer is covering the cost of monthly train passes to commute to and from Fort Lauderdale.
Baer said a work colleague who was accompanying her on the train had just filled up her car for $87.
These days, she said she’s riding Brightline three days a week and uses her car for the other two days. She said her car “gets pretty good gas mileage so I’d estimate I spend about $80 a month on gas just for my commute to work from downtown Miami to downtown Fort Lauderdale.”
“Unfortunately, we can’t be carless yet,” she said.
Jessica Pavlik, who is chief operating officer of the 90-attorney Berger Singerman law firm, said she started riding Brightline among the downtowns of Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Miami before the rail line suspended operations at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I take it now much more frequently because of the gas prices,” she said.
Less obvious costs and benefits
But Jim Mathews, president of the passengers association. suggested that travelers’ comparison price calculations between cars and trains is more often a sporadic exercise.
“One thing I guess I find interesting is when I look at the way people judge the cost of driving against taking the train,” he said. “They feel the cost of driving is the gas they’re putting in the car, which isn’t really true.”
Many overlook such expenses as the cost of insurance and maintenance, Mathews said. And long-distance drivers tend to omit the cost of meals and overnight hotel stays along the way.
“Very often taking a train was cheaper or a wash,” Mathews said. “But people didn’t necessarily internalize that.”
But the migration to trains appears to be driven almost as much by a psychic change as it is by a cold calculation of dollars and cents. Both Baer and Pavlik said they appreciate the ability to conduct business aboard the trains
“The convenience and the amount of time it saves me is the No. 1 thing,” Baer said. And Pavlik noted she is able to conduct Zoom meetings with office-bound colleagues while she’s riding the rails.
When Brightline resumed service, it installed a menu of free car rides to passengers who need a lift between the rail line’s downtown stations and customer homes or offices. The rides can be booked when passengers reserve their train trips and are included in the ticket price. The maximum the distance a driver will take a customer is within a 5-mile radius of each downtown station.
In West Palm Beach, the company last week installed a bicycle option for customers to ride around downtown.
Both Tri-Rail and Brightline are synchronizing train arrivals and departures with local events such as concerts and Miami Heat games.
Tri-Rail said it is adding a train for concert-goers headed for this weekend’s Ultra concert extravaganza in Miami-Dade. And Brightline revived its so-called “Buzzer Beater” service for Heat games, holding trains until after the NBA’s team’s home basketball games have concluded.
That magic $4 mark
“The fluctuations in gas prices continue to affect ridership,” said Steven Abrams, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which runs Tri-Rail. “We saw a peak a couple of weeks ago at $4.35. We saw the ridership spike. Now it’s back to where it was a week or two before that.”
“That $4 mark has always been a psychological threshold,” Abrams added. “People do look for those transportation alternatives, especially to Miami, because it’s a combination of not only saving money but also not sitting in traffic, or not dealing with traffic and our wonderfully polite South Florida drivers.”
And Tri-Rail says it has seen spikes in ridership that coincide with rises in gas prices as the students and blue collar workers who are its bread-and-butter passengers pile aboard.
Nationally, the scenario is playing out with Amtrak, as well as with commuter and regional lines in the east and west, said Mathews, president of the passengers association.
“We are seeing people voting with their feet and taking trains when and where they can as an alternative to driving,” he said. “We were seeing that for lots of reasons before the gas price hikes. It’s not just Amtrak. But you can look at Amtrak as a good anecdotal start.”
Between January and March, which he called “a low ridership season,” Amtrak’s ridership was up 10% year over year. He said the transit system in Salt Lake City, Utah, “has seen huge increases in ridership.” Meanwhile, discounts of up to 20% issued by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have prompted some Long Island, New York residents to eschew the Long Island Expressway for the Long Island Railroad for their office commutes, according to the New York Daily News.
Fares vary widely
Between the two rail lines in South Florida, there are pricing and service variables galore.
For leisure travelers, whom Brightline says constitute the majority of its customers, it pays to be aware that prices fluctuate during the day. They generally start from a low point in the early morning hours and move toward a peak toward the middle of the day and beyond.
For example, the schedule for Saturday, March 26 shows a $14 one-way “Smart” fare for a 7:25 a.m. train traveling from Fort Lauderdale to Miami. A “premium” ticket is listed at $27. By the time the 11:25 southbound train is to depart, the prices have risen to $32 and $47 respectively.
Tri-Rail’s fare structure is different and cheaper perhaps because the line has 18 stops on its schedule. Fares are divided into six zones, One-way prices range from $2.50 to $8.75 one-way, depending on the length of a trip.
Growing preference for rail investment
The renewed allure of trains may well explain why a national poll conducted for the passenger association showed a growing interest among Americans for more federal spending on rail. The large majority of those surveyed — 78% — said they want the federal government to invest in strengthening the nation’s passenger rail network. The addition of more routes to the current network received the support of 66% of the respondents, according to the poll.
The results came after President Joe Biden signed the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act, which could provide up to $100 billion for the national network over the next five years, the association said.
Brightline, which relies on private funds, isn’t waiting five years for the completion of its 170-mile extension from South to Central Florida. The new segment, which the company reports is 70% complete, is scheduled to be finished by next year.
Said Pavlik, the law firm executive: “I can’t wait until it gets to Orlando.”
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