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Brightline Gets All the Attention, But Tri-Rail's Going Into Downtown Miami Next Year

South Florida’s new, privately run train, Brightline, grabs all the headlines (just yesterday, it announced it would run a route between Southern California and Vegas) but the region’s workhorse commuter line has its own triumph: It will be expanding into downtown Miami next year. A new 9-mile Tri-Rail route, called the Downtown Link, should be operational by Q3 2019, Tri-Rail spokesperson Bonnie Arnold told Bisnow.

Brightline Gets All the Attention, But Tri-Rail's Going Into Downtown Miami Next Year
A Tri-Rail train in South Florida.

The Downtown Link will allow people from northern areas to get into downtown Miami without transferring. When it starts, every other southbound train will go downtown instead of to the current terminus at Miami International Airport. South of 79th Street, trains will switch from a set of western tracks (built by CSX and now owned by the state) to the eastern tracks (owned by Florida East Coast Railroad) and go for 9 miles, with no stops in between, into the new Miami Central station. 

Miami Central is a six-block transit-oriented development with a train station, two residential towers, offices and 180K SF of retail. The station was built with two tracks to accommodate Tri-Rail trains and three tracks for Brightline trains. A Tri-Rail shuttle train will also run directly between Miami Central and the airport. The station also connects with other rail systems that bring passengers to downtown Miami and to the county's south side. 

All of this added transit bodes well for transit-oriented development, which will be a hot topic at tomorrow's State of the Market event featuring Mayor Francis Suarez and local business leaders. Developers are trying to get ahead of where new transit lines will land.

13th Floor Investments Associate Vice President Aaron Stolear said he has looked at parcels that might benefit from Tri-Rail's proposed Coastal Link — and there is already competition to acquire those.  

“If two pieces of land are equal, and one is close to Coastal Link [and] one is not, and the numbers work out the same, of course we choose the one next to Coastal Link," he said.

But developers know to be wary of plans falling through.

“We just try to make the best with what we have and make sure any deal we do is a deal that would make sense regardless, and then [if transit comes to fruition], it’s just a better investment than it would be otherwise,” Stolear said.

13th Floor was granted rapid-transit zoning, which grants increased density and zero parking requirements, for a mixed-use transit-oriented development on 7 acres called The Link at Douglas in southern Miami-Dade. 13th Floor will renovate the Douglas Road Metrorail station and pay the county 3% of gross rents for use of the land. In late August, Miami-Dade leaders opted to move forward with a $243M rapid-transit bus system instead of expanding Metrorail.

Stolear said that is OK.

“I don’t think rail is the silver bullet that everyone loves. The key to the whole puzzle is to move toward a world where people are not going to own cars. We think the next decade is all about optionality,” he said.

13th Floor will give residents the option of a parking spot or a transit wallet with $100 monthly credit. The company is also working with a company called Envoy to add a fleet of cars that can be rented by the hour.

Brightline Gets All the Attention, But Tri-Rail's Going Into Downtown Miami Next Year
Tri-Rail is going into Downtown Miami, and eventually, Miami-Dade's east side.

Melo Group is taking advantage of TOD incentives with several downtown apartment towers, including Square Station, which is a block away from MiamiCentral. It is next to a Metromover station (yet another rail system that moves downtown) and is near a trolley stop, which principal Martin Melo said tenants use for work.

Melo said while Square Station residents use their cars infrequently, they haven't fully quit them. It will take a generation to wean people from cars, he predicted. He imagines that once people get comfortable with their infinity pools and the convenience of walking, no one will ever want to move to a single-family home in the suburbs. 

“People living in those condominiums [will get used to it] and they grow up and have kids," he said. "They won’t want to drive an hour and a half."

Arnold said Tri-Rail started in 1989 and was only intended as a five-year project to mitigate traffic on Interstate 95. The FEC tracks on the east might have been more ideal, passing through cities like North Miami and Miami Shores, but FEC at the time denied a request to allow commuter rail. CSX, however, “was cutting back on freight and had time for us to run,” Arnold said. So the train went westerly, to Opa-Locka and Hialeah and eventually to Miami International Airport, where a new station opened in 2015. Tri-Rail covers 72 miles to northern Palm Beach County and has 18 stops, and serves about 15,000 people per day. 

Fortress Investment Group acquired Florida East Coast Industries in 2007 and through a subsidiary called All Aboard Florida, started running private Brightline trains on the FEC tracks this year between three stops — Miami-Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with service planned to Orlando (and possibly the Treasure Coast and Tampa). Throughout this, tracks were sold to Grupo Mexico and Fortress was acquired by SoftBank. 

With the ownership changes came more collaboration with Tri-Rail.

“They’re in the business of making money. They have rights and land," Tri-Rail / South Florida Regional Transportation Authority board member Andrew Frey said. "We’re going to bring passengers to their real estate — customers, tenants — so our trains add value to Brightline’s real estate as well.”  

Plans have been floated for the trains going downtown to stop in Midtown, where a temporary station is a possibility. Frey said the next step is to work out a deal to add Tri-Rail stations in Miami-Dade's northeast corridor, part of Tri-Rail's planned Coastal Link. Aventura, Wynwood, Design District, Midtown, Aventura, 79th Street, North Miami and North Miami Beach have all been considered as potential locations for stations, and Tri-Rail has prepared a brochure about Coastal Link station opportunities, but final location decisions will require cooperation with Brightline.  

Frey urged patience.

“No one has done anything like Brightline in the last 100 years,” he said.

“We continue working with Miami-Dade County and SFRTA on their study of the Coastal Link system," Brightline spokesperson Ali Soule said. "There is no information about potential future stations at this time.”