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Fort Lauderdale’s Crashing Wave

yellow Portland streetcar in operation
Streetcar in Portland, Ore. Photo by Flickr user 5chw4r7z.

There are plenty of waves in my home city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida – even our main tourist street, Las Olas Boulevard, is named “the waves” in Spanish. But our most useless and expensive wave may have finally crashed.

I wrote in this space several years ago about the city’s planned streetcar system: a 2.7 mile loop with 10 stops, none of which would take you to the beach. (This plan was later expanded slightly to a 2.8 mile loop with 13 stops.) The Wave Streetcar was touted as a modern transit option that would support growth in Broward County’s urban core. As I observed in 2013, this seemed a dubious prospect for a system with relatively slow service and completely inflexible infrastructure, even before you factored in incompatibility of the trolley’s overhead wires with South Florida’s stormy climate.

Now the dubious project has exposed its true Achilles’ heel: cost. The Florida Department of Transportation will seek a new round of proposals for the project because the first round of bids came in around 50 percent over budget. Even the cheapest proposals for construction overshot officials’ budget by about $74 million. Now the Wave is shaping up to be a dumb idea at more than twice the original cost, once you factor in extras like higher maintenance and replacement costs when the original infrastructure wears out.

If the second round of bids come in over budget too, the extra cost would be split between the state, the county, the city of Fort Lauderdale and the city’s Downtown Development Authority. That is, they will split the cost if neither the state nor the county exercises their right to pull the plug on the project altogether. Three Broward commissioners already voted to halt the project in June, even prior to the recent round of bidding.

Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale’s downtown has been booming for some time, no streetcars required. In fact, it is hard to see how any streetcar system could attract more development than is already happening.

Moreover, Fort Lauderdale residents are now getting intelligent rail downtown, in the form of the privately built and funded Brightline train. Unlike the Wave, the Brightline actually serves a purpose by connecting the downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Eventually it will extend all the way to a new transport hub at Orlando’s international airport. This is light rail that South Florida residents can actually benefit from, and it makes the uselessness of the Wave even starker by comparison.

The whole streetcar project never made much sense as a development strategy. It only made sense as a political theology, one which Democrats particularly embraced during the Obama administration. The Wave was largely built on the promise of federal dollars, as were similar light rail projects around the country. Politicians, both national and local, have convinced themselves through repetition that mass transit, and specifically rail transit, is vital to growing urban economies – despite the fact that if you remove New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, transit carries less than 1 percent of Americans getting from point A to point B. Even so, it remains a central tenet of Democratic orthodoxy.

Not coincidentally, Fort Lauderdale and surrounding Broward County are the most heavily Democratic region in Florida. But even here, reality threatens to intrude. Local politicians are obviously cringing at the thought of facing taxpayers once the snowballing costs come rolling onto our annual bills. (We don’t get many snowballs down here.) You can practically see them wriggling as they look for a way out. My own city commissioner, Dean Trantalis, said of the Wave in his most recent email newsletter, “Enough is enough.”

Trantalis had publicly expressed doubts about the Wave months ago, but even some of the system’s more dedicated supporters are beginning to look nervous. Some of them may want to scale down an already limited service to fit the budget, so they can still say they built a train – just as California has tried to find a place to build a train, any train, to fit its rail fantasies. If we’re lucky, they won’t get the chance.

All waves crash and break when they hit solid ground. Fort Lauderdale’s Wave may have just crashed relatively harmlessly, as long as local officials decide not to soak the town for no reason.

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