Hey, good news. The price of a looming boondogle seems to have gone down. The Wave, a downtown Fort Lauderdale electric streetcar/light rail loop, was pegged to cost $150 million when I wrote a column lampooning it in 2008.
Now, almost five years later, the Broward County commission has given final approval for the questionable project and it's projected to be only $142 million.
Such a deal!
I'm going to be writing about The Wave -- and the broader issue of our regional transit system -- for my Thursday print column. I dug up my column from the last time I wrote about it, in May 2008 (my, how time flies) and figured I'd reprint it here. Not much has changed with my views since then, although the empty downtown condo towers I wrote about have more real people living in them now as the economy has improved.
May 1, 2008
PROPOSED NEW TRANSIT WAVE SOUNDS LIKE A WIPEOUT
As boondoggles go, I love this proposed light-rail transit system for downtown Fort Lauderdale being pushed by the Downtown Development Authority.
It sounds great: Electric streetcars going almost nowhere being ridden by virtually no one. A perfect way for all those phantom residents of downtown condo high-rises to not commute to jobs they don't have.
But that's OK, proponents of The Wave say, because developers will still flock to build things near the fixed rail lines.
Uh, does this sound backward or what?
I'm all for mass transit, especially in these eco-conscious, $4-a-gallon times.
But a $150 million, 2.7-mile project such as this should be the last piece in our sprawling region's mass transit puzzle, not one of the first.
Here's what Broward residents need sooner: Rail transit routes going east-west along the Interstate 595 corridor and north-south on the Florida East Coast railway tracks along Dixie Highway.
If linked properly, those projects could actually help get transit-averse South Floridians out of their cars. Both are in the early planning stages.
A transit system on the FEC tracks also could make Fort Lauderdale's proposed Wave streetcars redundant, since the two systems would run parallel and be separated by mere blocks for much of the route.
That hasn't stopped the Downtown Development Authority, a special taxing district with a pro-development mission, from pushing this half-baked mistake into the oven.
Over the past seven years, the DDA has spent almost $4.1 million on planning, consulting and other fees associated with the project.
After all that, you think the DDA board or its latest consultant would say, "Sorry, this pig won't fly?"
Instead, we get self-serving projections and rosy optimism.
The board's consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff, estimates the Wave could attract 8,000 riders a day.
That seems irrationally exuberant, considering the regional Tri-Rail system, which spans Miami to West Palm Beach, is still hard-pressed to break 15,000 riders a day after almost two decades.
And it also seems overly optimistic when you consider that the free downtown light-rail in Portland, Ore., has an excellent feeder system from suburban commuter lines and still gets only 9,000 riders a day.
Then there are the sobering numbers from the current Sun Trolley system that's meandered along a similar downtown Fort Lauderdale route.
When it was free, it snagged less than 200 passengers a day. When there was a 50-cent fare (it reverts to free service today), the Sun Trolley attracted less than 100 daily riders.
Less than 100 a day, in a city of 175,000 and county of 1.7 million!
No problem, say board members such as developers Jack Loos and Alan Hooper. Just lay tracks below, hang electric wires above and charge nothing and people will clamor to ride The Wave.
How would this get built? A combination of federal and state transit funds, and local money that would come from a special 30-year assessment of downtown residents and businesses.
The city commission has given preliminary approval to the funding plan, but it's unclear if the assessment proposal will trigger opposition as it gets wider publicity. And there are no guarantees that the $75 million federal share will come.
But that hasn't stopped the DDA board from charging full speed ahead, with marketing and lobbying efforts aimed at garnering support.
When it comes to The Wave, perhaps the Downtown Development Authority should heed its own Web site ( www.ddaftl.org). On Wednesday it featured a Quote of the Day from French philosopher Jean Rostand: "To love an idea is to love it a little more than one should."