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Businesses Organize To Push Brightline Expansion With 5 New Stops In Miami-Dade

The eastern side of Miami-Dade County has long been starved for commuter rail, but a private-public partnership could finally bring service to five neighborhoods between Aventura and downtown, including North Miami, the Upper East Side and Wynwood.

The administration of outgoing County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has been negotiating with private train Brightline, though there are concerns about cost, fares and coordination with the publicly run Tri-Rail service. The county commission will vote on a memorandum of understanding with Brightline this month.

In the meantime, the business community has formed a new coalition, announced Tuesday, that will push for the commuter rail. 

Organizations including the Wynwood Business Improvement District, Florida International University, Miami-Dade College, Adrienne Arsht Center and Uber announced they have formed a “Northeast Corridor Coalition” to support a deal with Brightline.

Additionally, the Wynwood BID at its August meeting passed a resolution to shoulder costs — estimated at less than $2M — for a commuter rail platform station to be built on private property at NE 27th Street between North Miami Avenue and NE Second Avenue, where the Wynwood, Midtown and Edgewater neighborhoods come together.

Albert Garcia, co-founder of the BID and chairman of the new coalition, said mass transit is sorely needed in the congested northeast part of the county.

“The implementation of much needed commuter rail service along the Northeast corridor will expand mobility choices, take cars off the road and enhance the walkability of neighborhoods,” he told Bisnow in an email.

Pablo Ortiz, vice provost at FIU's Biscayne Bay Campus, said a train would be extraordinary for getting students to campus from throughout the county.

"Now is the time to act," he said.

"This is the closest we've come" to getting local service on the east side after decades of talks and studies, said Andrew Frey, a member of the governing board of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees the Tri-Rail commuter train that runs between Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

This map of South Florida rail shows how north-south lines diverge when they come into Miami-Dade County and no rail goes to the beach.

Two major sets of train tracks run through South Florida; they're close together and parallel as they go through the east sides of Palm Beach and Broward counties, but diverge when they come south into Miami-Dade. There, state-owned tracks branch westward to Opa-Locka, Hialeah and the airport. Amtrak and Tri-Rail run on these state-owned tracks.

The other tracks, privately owned by the Florida East Coast Railway, go more directly southward along the east side of Miami-Dade, through neighborhoods like Aventura and North Miami. FECR for decades only ran freight on these tracks. But FECR was sold to Grupo Mexico in 2017, and Brightline obtained rights to run passenger trains on its tracks. It has been using them since launching Brightline express train service to West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in 2018. Service stopped amid the coronavirus pandemic, but Brightline plans to expand to Orlando and Tampa.

Brightline and Tri-Rail began cooperating, and the Miami Central station downtown was built to accommodate both Brightline's and Tri-Rail's style of trains, which have different physical requirements for platforms. Tri-Rail has long intended to add a "Coastal Link" to serve the populated east side, but would need Brightline's permission to use the tracks.

Though Brightline had initially launched as an express service with only a few stops in city centers, it began exploring the idea of adding local stops, and won efforts to build stations in Aventura and Boca Raton. In May, Brightline submitted a proposal to add five stops between Aventura and downtown, essentially doing itself what Tri-Rail had long proposed. News stories described Tri-Rail and Brightline now competing with each other to run the commuter service in Miami-Dade and get funding from the county, but Frey said the situation is more complex than that. 

The proposal from Brightline called for Miami-Dade to pay $29M annually to use the FECR tracks, plus $30M to $50M to Brightline to operate the service, the Miami Herald reported. Some commissioners balked at the price, wary that the county could be bailing out a private company, considering that Brightline's ridership and revenues have fallen far short of predictions. In 2019, the train expected 2.1 million passengers and $78M in revenue, but attracted just 1 million riders and $22.1M in revenue, according to the South Florida Business Journal.

Tri-Rail Director Steven Abrams argued to county commissioners that it would be cheaper for the county to enlist Tri-Rail as the operator, and that whereas Brightline offers luxury service (its current routes cost a minimum of $10 per ride), Tri-Rail would be sure to price tickets for working-class people. 

Tri-Rail had planned a Coastal Link to serve Miami's east side.

Nevertheless, in June, the county tentatively moved forward with Brightline, authorizing the mayor's administration to negotiate directly with the company. They are expected to come up with a new memorandum of understanding and the county commission is slated to vote on it in September.

Frey said he thinks the best resolution would be for the county to make a deal with Tri-Rail, which could in turn contract with Brightline or another entity to operate the service day-to-day. Tri-Rail has local expertise and would ensure fares are affordable and that the engineering on new local stations ensures connectivity with Tri-Rail stations in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Either way, Brightline would still be compensated for use of the tracks.

Railway Age said if a deal were to go through with Brightline, "it would be unique in the U.S., since all other regional/commuter railroads are publicly owned, as is Amtrak. In many cases, trains are operated by a local or regional authority that leases trackage rights from privately owned freight railroad companies."

Frey said he believes the county and Brightline should be able to come to an agreement on operating expenses and capital expenses, but "the question mark is the access fee" to use the tracks. He thought Brightline's proposed fees were high but was optimistic a deal could be reached.

"It'll have to be a number that's mutually acceptable and fair — otherwise there is no deal," he said. 

The Northeast Corridor Coalition will advocate for a commuter rail along the FEC Railway/Brightline corridor.

The commuter rail system proposed by Brightline would run between MiamiCentral Station and Aventura with possible stops at Wynwood/Midtown/Edgewater, Miami Design District, Upper Eastside/El Portal/Miami Shores, North Miami and FIU/Biscayne Bay.  The new coalition said that if approved, construction could begin this year and service could begin in 2022. Groundbreaking on the already-approved station in Aventura — for which the county is paying $76M — is set to take place this Thursday. The Boca Raton station has been delayed amid the coronavirus.

Brightline Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Ben Porritt couldn't disclose details on talks with the county but said, "This project has a tremendous amount of community support and people are excited about the possibility to connect Miami Dade like never before. It’s great to see the community engaged and supportive."

The county did not offer comment by press time. 

In other news around Florida's ever-complicated rail efforts, a shiny new $5.3M station was built for Amtrak at the airport in 2017, but it never started service there because the platforms were built too short for the trains. After $3B of taxes were collected, plans were ditched for a long-promised commuter rail extension serving the southern part of the county; and in the U.S. Supreme Court, Brightline is facing a challenge over $2.1B it raised through the sale of bonds.

County officials are also considering a $770M monorail that would go along a causeway over the Intracoastal Waterway and finally bring rail service to Miami Beach, the prime tourist destination.