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Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Streetcar Project, Long Planned for, Faces New Heavy Opposition

The Wave rail system is in jeopardy after all six Fort Lauderdale candidates have pledged to kill the project.

by Larry Barszewski, Brittany Wallman, Sun Sentinel / February 6, 2018

(TNS) — Fort Lauderdale’s $195 million Wave streetcar project could lose its new lease on life as city and county commissioners determine its future Tuesday.

Broward commissioners, who two weeks ago supported a new agreement, will consider changes that could be a double-edged sword for the city.

Fort Lauderdale would be able to back out of the downtown project if the proposed cost exceeds 125 percent of the $114 million construction budget. However, in any other case, it would be harder for any future city commission to try to kill the Wave by pulling out the city’s money.

In order to get new construction bids, both the city and county need to approve the agreement. State transportation officials, who are managing the downtown streetcar project, rejected proposals released in October that would have sent the project’s total costs over $270 million. They have scaled back portions of the project hoping to bring the cost down substantially.

An earlier version of the agreement squeaked through the County Commission in January on a 5-4 vote, but at least one commissioner on the prevailing side is having second thoughts now.

Broward Commissioner Mark Bogen said he is concerned about the county having an “open-ended liability” for construction change orders for the next three years. He’s also concerned about the additional costs the county might be forced to pay to enhance a vehicle maintenance facility that is being scaled back to keep the project costs down.

“Right now my position is not where it was last time,” Bogen said Monday. “In the past week, I’ve been meeting with people, talking with people. Some of the new information has really concerned them.”

Bogen is also concerned that Fort Lauderdale’s incoming commissioners aren’t getting a say.

Bogen and others wanted the new commission that will be seated in March to weigh in. All six candidates representing a majority of the incoming commission have committed to canceling the Wave as soon as they take office.

But state officials say they need an answer this week. At risk is $10 million of the pledged federal funds that would be jeopardized by a further delay — money that Acting District Transportation Secretary Stacy Miller said is needed to keep the project financially viable.

“We are all aware that the project does not have sufficient capital funding to make up for loss of the [federal] grant funds,” Miller wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry. The project has received $82.7 million from the federal government, $52.7 million from the state and $59.9 million divided between the city, the Downtown Development Authority, downtown property owners and the county.

The rail loop, an idea that emerged at least 16 years ago at the city’s downtown authority, would connect riders who step off a county bus or the new Brightline train service to downtown areas that might be too far to walk to in the South Florida heat. The public’s first exposure to the idea was in 2004, when it was envisioned as a way to get from the Himmarshee entertainment district on Southwest Second Street to Las Olas Boulevard.

That route plus a planned second link on Andrews Avenue from Sistrunk Boulevard to Ninth Street south of the New River was expected to cost $38 million.

Much changed over the years.

The route now runs from Sistrunk to Southeast 17th Street, mostly on or near Andrews Avenue, but with a jog to the east to carry the light-rail streetcars over the New River on the Southeast Third Avenue bridge.

If the Broward commission reverses course Tuesday, Bogen said that will supersede what it did two weeks ago. County Attorney Andrew Meyers wouldn’t comment about the implications of a negative vote.

“All contingencies will be addressed,” Meyers said in a written response. “I’m sorry that I am not in position to provide further details at this time.”

So many different aspects of the 2.8-mile downtown system have come under attack, including the overhead wires that will power the streetcars over most of the route, the in-ground tracks that have the streetcars sharing a lane of traffic with other vehicles and an initial route that offers few destinations riders would want.

Critics have said the system relies on old technology and have suggested alternative systems, but the Federal Transit Administration says the federal money that has been awarded can’t be used for a different purpose.

“Changing the project to a different mode would fall outside the scope of the existing grant agreement and would be a new project that would need to be independently evaluated for funding. The new project could not be funded using the existing agreement,” the FTA said in an email response to questions about the project.

Transportation officials are planning for an expanded system that one day would be able to take riders to Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Executive Airport, Nova Southeastern University’s campus in Davie and west to the Sawgrass Mills mall.

James Donnelly, chairman of the Broward Workshop, emailed city and county commissioners that the group of business leaders supports the project.

“All systems have to start somewhere and with the introduction of Brightline and soon the WAVE, we will have two important building blocks in place,” Donnelly wrote.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler is one of those concerned that to back out now would jeopardize future federal funds needed for Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, a new federal courthouse and other regional transportation projects.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, backed up Seiler’s concerns, saying that if local governments “prove to be inconsistent or unreliable partners, the reality is that it will make it tougher to make the case for projects in the future.” In her written statement, she said there is “significant competition nationwide for these scarce federal resources.”

“I will always fight aggressively for community transit funding, and I’m sure my Broward Congressional Delegation colleagues will join me,” she said, “but making that case with state and federal funding agencies becomes more difficult in the future if that local commitment falters.”

©2018 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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