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By Brittany Wallman, Sun Sentinel
FORT LAUDERDALE In a few years, downtown drivers should be able to park their cars and ride the rails instead.
Broward County on Tuesday gave final approval to run “The Wave,” a $142 million electric streetcar system that initially will travel a small loop around the urban core.
The thousands of people who work downtown will be able to hop aboard and leave their cars in garages. Suburbanites with business at the county courthouse will be able to take a bus downtown, then connect to the modern rail. And those who remain in their cars will share the road with the stop-and-go streetcars.
The trains will run on tracks, powered by overhead wires. Because planners could not run the wires over the New River, the trains will traverse the Third Avenue bridge on battery power.
The county commission’s unanimous vote was hailed as a giant step forward for mass transit in a region where only the car-less use it.
“I think this is a banner day for transit in this county,” said Chris Wren, head of the Downtown Development Authority, which spearheaded the project. “It’s exciting.”
With their vote, commissioners put in writing a promise former county commissioners had made informally in the past, committing to operate the system for 20 years, at a hefty cost — about $1 million a mile annually.
First to be built is an $83 million, 1.4 mile loop. Though many other agency approvals are still needed, the funding is lined up and the line is expected to be up and running by 2016.
Unlike older cities in the north, Broward was built out without a mass transit system, other than rubber-tired buses. County officials are working now to retrofit mass transit in a way that would appeal to those who have a choice.
The first phase of The Wave is a relatively short loop.
The streetcar will run from the Central Bus Terminal on Broward Boulevard, south on Brickell Avenue through the Riverfront complex, then east on Las Olas Boulevard.
At Southeast Third Avenue, the streetcar hangs a right and chugs south over the bridge, converting from overhead electrical lines to battery power.
Once over the bridge, the streetcar returns to electrical power via overhead lines, and heads east on Sixth Street, right past the County Courthouse.
At Andrews Avenue, the streetcar travels south a block in order to loop back around to Third Avenue and return to the bus terminal.
The dream, though, is to expand the route to 2.7 miles, and Broward has asked the federal government for $50 million to do that. The route would extend north to Sistrunk Boulevard, and south to 17th Street.
When complete, the route will pass a lineup of major employment centers, many of them public employers — the school board, federal and county courts, county government, Fort Lauderdale City Hall and Broward Health Medical Center.
Broward Transit Director Tim Garling said the fare hasn’t been set but likely would mirror the bus fare, $1.75 for a ride.
Questions still remain, and risks hang over the project.
Commissioner Sue Gunzburger worried about committing 20 years to a rail line that passengers might not ride. Rather than mass transit, she said, what if it’s a “mass failure”?
Others fear expansion funds from the federal government will never come and Broward will be stuck with a tiny but expensive system.
But Commissioner Lois Wexler said the die was cast when in 2004 a prior commission gave the go-ahead, and the county’s “in this for the long haul.”
“I’m going to believe that we’re going to make this work,” she said. “But the only way that this is going to work is if it is the 2.7 miles, not 1.4.”
County Administrator Bertha Henry said the expected ridership isn’t what’s driving The Wave. It’s the expectation of economic development along the line.
“It’ll be a game changer,” said Garling, whose resume includes work in Portland, Ore., considered the model city for rail. “Rail kind of uniquely attracts development. We’ve seen this across the country.”
Like other major projects in Broward County, The Wave has been years in the making. Millions have been spent, countless meetings have been held, consultants and lobbyists have come and gone and still, it remains a hope.
“When I was hired 10 years ago last November, this was my priority project,” Wren said.
But last summer brought a milestone moment: The federal government contributed an $18 million grant to help build the first phase.
Rounding out the money needed to build the 1.4 mile loop: $10.5 million in cash or land from the city of Fort Lauderdale, $32 million from the state, $8 million to come from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, and about $14 million from property owners along the line, via a special assessment.
Formal approvals for all those pieces are still needed.
Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs said federal officials will embrace The Wave and send more money its way, after they’re sure the county will pay the estimated $2.5 million a year to operate it. That’s why Tuesday’s vote was critical, Jacobs and Wren said.
“That’s huge,” said Wren.
“This is, indeed, a very first step of a longer vision,” Jacobs said. “And beyond that … an even longer vision to get us in other places throughout the county.”
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