Miami-Dade County

Tri-Rail: Changes in state funding could ‘put us out of business’


The agency that operates South Florida’s Tri-Rail commuter trains is scrambling to get ahead of looming changes to its state funding that executives worry could leave it unable to pay millions in expenses starting this summer.

The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority learned last month that the Florida Department of Transportation will likely alter the disbursement of the $30.6 million given each year to support Tri-Rail’s roughly $70 million operations budget. Instead of doling out the money in quarterly installments, as happens now, the state may require the transportation authority to pay for costs up front and submit expenses for reimbursements, starting July 1.

The expected changes, which SFRTA executive director Jack Stephens says are “onerous,” are the result of a Nov. 10 state audit that determined the Florida Department of Transportation’s Tri-Rail agreement does not comply with state law. The audit was prompted by a former FDOT District 4 secretary who became concerned about the transparency of Tri-Rail’s spending.

“A new working arrangement needs to reverse the prior process,” said Bob Clift, the inspector general assigned to the Florida Department of Transportation. “We don’t just give them money in advance and let them spend it on whatever is appropriate. We reimburse them for allowable expenses.”

We don’t just give them money in advance and let them spend it on whatever is appropriate

Bob Clift, FDOT inspector general

Executives and board members of the SFRTA said Friday during a board meeting in Pompano Beach that Clift’s office is misinterpreting the law. But they believe FDOT’s leadership will nevertheless ratify the audit recommendations, jeopardizing a service used by 15,000 passengers every day from Palm Beach County to Hialeah.

“This could literally put us out of business,” said Stephens.

This could literally put us out of business Jack Stephens,

SFRTA executive director

Clift noted that SFRTA previously sought money by submitting receipts before entering into a new agreement about five years ago. But Stephens said the past arrangement was limited in scope and amount. The changes proposed by Clift’s office are far more sweeping, he said.

“The implication is that we would have to somehow find $30 million under a sofa cushion, spend it, and then ask FDOT for reimbursement,” said Andrew Frey, one of the transportation authority’s 10 board members.

The SFRTA board voted Friday to begin working on legislation that if passed this session in Tallahassee would clarify that the money Tri-Rail receives from the state under Florida statutes can be provided as up-front grants. Meanwhile, Stephens and Gerry O’Reilly, the current FDOT District 4 secretary, said they’ll work on reaching a new agreement that is considered legal by the inspector general and acceptable to both sides.

we would have to somehow find $30 million under a sofa cushion

Andrew Frey, SFRTA board member

On the bright side, Tri-Rail only recently wriggled out of a tight spot created by the state.

Last session, the Legislature failed to pass a bill that included language needed to clarify liability should private and public passenger trains crash following the launch of All Aboard Florida’s Brightline trains on the Florida East Coast railway. That prompted the Department of Transportation to back out of a $20 million contribution needed to fully fund the creation and link to a downtown Miami Tri-Rail station, but the SFRTA board addressed both problems by taking out a loan and paying for an self-insurance fund.

Stephens said he’s hopeful SFRTA can find a new solution in the next seven months. A last resort possibility, he said, is to sue the Department of Transportation.

“We do have the first six months of next year where we will be receiving our normal quarterly allocation from FDOT,” he said. “The problem comes after July 1.”

Related stories from Miami Herald