On Sept. 22, Fort Lauderdale residents gathered at Holiday Park’s social center for the final public meeting on a topic that has long bedeviled South Florida — public transportation.

For an urban area its size, South Florida has an atrocious mass transit system, consisting of a confounding series of buses; the TriRail system that runs north-south, but well to the west of the beachside population centers; and the Miami Metromover that seems more like a Disney ride than a viable public transportation option.

Although Metrorail, one of only two heavy rail systems in the entire southeast United States (the other being Atlanta’s MARTA system), ferries people from the Palmetto Expressway in the north to Kendall in the south, there is no rail system connecting Miami to the other East Coast cities.

And yet, the Florida East Coast railway, now used exclusively for freight — though passenger trains once ran along it as well —passes through every East Coast city from Jacksonville to Miami. Plans to use the railway to once again ferry passengers through South Florida have been in the discussion phase for years, but have never been close to fruition.

After studying public transit options for several years, the Florida Department of Transportation narrowed them down to four, and for the past several weeks, the department’s South Florida East Coast Corridor Study group has met with South Floridians to go over the plans. The four alternatives include a bus system that runs on the current streets, a bus system that runs on a bus-only road next to the Florida East Coast railway, a train on the FEC pulled by a locomotive or an integrated rail system in which each car has its own diesel engine, without the locomotive.

One of these options, the bus system that runs on the streets, would cost about $220 million. The other three all cost about $2.4 billion. And yet, despite this election year’s demands for fiscal discipline, according to officials with the study, attendees at the Sept. 22 meeting and all the others have overwhelmingly voted for the integrated rail system, even with its $2.47 billion price tag.

The reasons why aren’t hard to see. At peak hours, so-called “diesel multiple units” would travel from Jupiter to Miami in about two hours. The locomotive-pulled train would take two-and-a-half, while both bus systems would take more than four hours.

Also, the diesel multiple unit system would service more riders than any other option and have a smaller environmental impact. The price tag, then, which is similar to all but the cheapest bus option, seems more than reasonable, especially when local residents won’t be picking up the entire bill.

“We expect funding to be 50 percent federal, 25 percent state and then 25 percent local,” explained Scott Seeburger, the project manager for the South Florida East Coast Corridor Study. “[Funding] isn’t just the big if. At this point, it’s the only if.”

Among the attendees of the Sept. 22 meeting were councilmen and commissioners from cities such as Wilton Manors and Pompano Beach and Broward County Commission representatives. Those who chose to speak at the meeting were all in favor of a new system, but they all said they would need more specifics on the costs associated with the project before they could officially support it. The necessary federal and state funds can only come after the study is completed, following phase 3 of the project, which should end in 2013.

With the locally preferred alternative now well-known, the Florida Department of Transportation will next work to convince all three of South Florida’s metropolitan planning organizations to adopt the diesel multiple unit system as the go-to mass transit for South Florida.

Each region will then independently develop its rail options through 2013, with construction to be completed by about 2017.

As they stand now, the rail plans will be a huge boon to several cities along the East Coast corridor due to increased tourist dollars. Pompano Beach, about midway between the northern terminus at Indiantown Road and the southern one at the Miami Government Center (where riders can then transfer to Metrorail to continue on to Kendall) may stand to gain more than any other city, as it will be the connecting point for all of the new system’s rail lines.

The red line will run from Indiantown Road to the Miami Government Center with stops at major destinations in between, but between Indiantown Road and Pompano Beach, it will run on the western CSX tracks, where TriRail runs, before hooking up with the eastern FEC tracks at Pompano Beach.

The green line will run between the same destinations, but entirely on the FEC, and will have many more local stops. A blue line will run from Pompano Beach to the Miami Airport on the CSX tracks, while a black line will run from West Palm Beach to the Miami Airport, entirely on the CSX tracks (mirroring the current TriRail route).

“We’ve never been closer to having a new transit system in South Florida,” Seeburger said. “And personally, I’d much rather ride the train than have to put up with a commute of any length here.”

Details on the diesel multiple unit system (click to enlarge):

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