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Sep 24th
Third Rail PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
January 2018

Miami to Fort Lauderdale in 30 relaxing minutes. Really?

Dreams of private rail service along the Biscayne Corridor and beyond could end up costing taxpayers

BCoverStory_Lead_Shoty the time you read this story, 20 trains a day are supposed to be zooming back and forth between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Sometime early this year those same trains -- with amenities that include Wi-Fi, leather seating, complimentary food and drinks, and “premium lounge” access for first-class passengers -- will begin arriving at a shiny new elevated station in downtown Miami near the county’s Stephen P. Clark Government Center.

When that happens, there will be 16 northbound and 16 southbound trains traveling each day between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach at around 80 miles per hour. And someday, perhaps as early as 2020, those red, pink, orange, green, and blue trains will be cruising at speeds ranging from 110 to 125 miles per hour all the way to Orlando International Airport.

This brand-new transit service is known as Brightline. Unlike the elevated Metrorail system running from South Miami-Dade to Hialeah, and Tri-Rail west of I-95, Brightline is a private train system owned and operated by All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, which will soon be acquired by Softbank, a Tokyo-based multinational company headed by Masayoshi Son, who, with $22 billion in assets, is reputed to be the richest man in Japan.

As of deadline, ticket prices have yet to be set, but Brightline’s web page promises to deliver passengers from Miami to Fort Lauderdale in just 30 minutes, and from Miami to West Palm Beach in an hour. In contrast, it takes as long as three hours to drive in rush-hour from Miami to West Palm Beach, says John Renne, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions.

“It’s going to be a game-changer for people who want to go back and forth between the downtown areas,” says Renne, an expert on transit and mobility issues, who commutes twice a month from his home in West Palm Beach to Miami to attend conferences on transportation. “You’re not going to see traffic evaporate. That’s not going to happen,” he cautions, “but it’s going to be a tremendous time-saver.”

CoverStory_2Marta Viciedo, director of Transit Alliance Miami, a nonprofit that pushes for transit solutions in Greater Miami, is excited about Brightline’s arrival. “Personally, I believe the more transportation options and more mobility options to get around, the more competitive and resilient our community will be,” says Viciedo, who co-founded the for-profit Miami planning firm Urban Impact Lab.

More important, Viciedo sees Brightline as a step toward another milestone: the creation of an 85-mile commuter train line from downtown Miami to Jupiter in north Palm Beach County. Unlike Brightline, this proposed commuter line wouldn’t connect just four downtown areas. Instead it would have about 20 stops in places like the Design District, the Upper Eastside, North Miami, North Miami Beach, the Ojus region just west of Aventura, Hollywood, Dania Beach, Pompano Beach, Deerfield, Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, and Palm Beach Gardens.

There’s already a plan in place to create such a commuter train service. Now referred to as the Tri-Rail Coastal Link, the train was intended to be operated by the South Florida Regional Transportation Agency (SFRTA), the same state-funded agency that operates the Tri-Rail commuter train service running from the Miami International Airport to Magnolia Park in Palm Beach County.

The exact number of trips Coastal Link would make each day has not been determined. (The current Tri-Rail runs 50 trains a day on the state-owned CSX tracks.) But when it’s operational, Coastal Link trains will use the same tracks as Brightline and the Florida East Coast Railway, which actually owns the tracks and also transports freight 16 times a day.


BCoverStory_3uilding Coastal Link won’t be cheap. All Aboard Florida claims it has so far invested $1.3 billion upgrading the FEC tracks just for Brightline. According to a March 2017

As a step toward bringing commuter service to the FEC tracks, officials from the state and county, and the City of Miami contributed $69 million toward the creation of a rail link between the FEC-owned tracks and the CSX tracks now used by Tri-Rail and Amtrak. Thanks to the investment, approved in July 2015, the new link will connect the CSX terminus at the Miami Intermodal Center near the airport with All Aboard Florida’s MiamiCentral Station, a three-million-square-foot behemoth that will include two separate stations for Brightline and Tri-Rail, 816 residential units, around 200,000 square feet of retail, and at least 1000 parking spaces.

However, it’s Brightline, and not any government entity, that has exclusive passenger rights to the FEC tracks. Last summer All Aboard Florida slammed the brakes on Coastal Link when it told state transportation planners and county transit officials from Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach that the company might want to run at least part of the commuter line, too.

Alice Bravo, director of the Miami-Dade Department of Transportation, says prior to last summer, the county was negotiating with the Florida Department of Transportation, SFRTA, and All Aboard Florida on the commuter rail’s ultimate form. At the time, the county was contemplating ways to pay for at least part of the construction and operation of Coastal Link along the FEC tracks for the segment within Miami-Dade.

“What we had envisioned was that we would hire Tri-Rail [SFRTA] to be our operator,” Bravo says.

That changed when All Aboard Florida requested a time-out to consider the feasibility of Brightline running parts, or all, of a new commuter line as well. “They [All Aboard Florida executives] said, ‘Look, we need to focus 100 percent on getting our service up and running. We [then] need to see the results of that service. Maybe there are opportunities where we can service some of those intermediate stations,’” Bravo remembers.

How long did All Aboard Florida’s representatives say they needed to analyze the results of Brightline’s tri-county performance? Bravo says she was told six months to one year.

All Aboard Florida didn’t want to discuss Coastal Link with Biscayne Times, at least not yet. “Brightline is focused on launching Phase 1 of its service and providing an exceptional travel experience to its future guests,” the company said in a written statement.

CoverStory_4

Actually, All Aboard Florida is also pretty keen on getting started on Phase 2 -- the link-up to Orlando International Airport. On December 22, the federal Department of Transportation approved the sale of $1.2 billion in tax-free bonds to pay for the connection between West Palm Beach station and a future station in Orlando. (Phase 1, the connection between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, was financed by $600 million in tax-free bonds, which were blessed by the state’s Florida Development Finance Corporation.)

Following the approval, Brightline CEO Dave Howard (who, prior to being hired by Brightline in March 2017, ran the business operations for the NBA’s New York Knicks, the NHL’s New York Rangers, and the WNBA’s New York Liberty) declared via press release that construction on Phase 2 would start by early 2018.

That wasn’t welcome news for many Treasure Coast residents, who oppose Brightline running through their neighborhoods. In an April guest column in TCPalm.com, a Gannett Company-run news website serving the Treasure Coast, Martin County administrator Taryn Kryzda claimed that Brightline would increase train traffic in that area from 10-14 times each day to as many as 52 times a day. Locals worry that such a dramatic increase in train traffic will create vehicular traffic delays where gridlock is currently not a major issue. And since the trains are expected to travel at around 110 mph along the Treasure Coast, there are fears that Brightline will become a safety hazard for pedestrian-friendly communities north of Palm Beach County.

Officials from Martin and St. Lucie counties disliked Brightline so much that they filed suit in 2014 to derail it. That suit was dismissed by a federal judge last May, but other legal challenges are likely.

Meanwhile, back in Miami, Tri-Rail’s connection to MiamiCentral has wrinkles of its own. Bonnie Arnold, spokeswoman for the South Florida Regional Transportation Agency (SFRTA), says it may be up to nine months after Tri-Rail’s station at MiamiCentral is substantially complete before Tri-Rail operates there. The reason: safety.

Federal regulations require that Positive Train Control, or PTC, be placed in trains and along train tracks to prevent train-on-train collisions and derailments due to excessive speed -- similar to the Amtrak accident in Washington State that claimed three lives and injured 100.

Arnold explains that SFRTA needs to obtain the necessary equipment and hire personnel to install a PTC system that’s similar to what’s being used by Brightline. That will take time and money, perhaps “millions of dollars,” Arnold says, an expense that will likely be borne by taxpayers. “One of the problems is that the federal government mandated it be installed,” Arnold says, “but they didn’t allocate any funding for it.”

For its part, All Aboard Florida says it’s working with the Federal Railroad Administration to make sure Brightline’s passengers arrive safely at their destinations. “We are installing safety measures, such as a new automatic train control system, Positive Train Control, crossing predictor units to provide consistent warning time to motorists of a train’s approach, and grade crossing improvements at every at-grade intersection,” the company states.


TCoverStory_5reasure Coast residents may oppose the idea of trains whizzing through their communities, but transit advocates and elected officials in South Florida are eager for trains.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, for example, says her constituents in northeast Miami-Dade are forced to drive in heavily congested traffic (and then hunt for expensive parking) or wait for a bus if they want to commute to downtown Miami. “My main interest and concern is to produce an alternative to get from the county line all the way to [downtown’s] Government Center without cars,” she explains. Buses, she adds, are at best “hit and miss” as a transit option.

The desire for commuter trains is driven by South Florida’s horrendous traffic. According to Inrix, a company that performs transportation analytics, the South Florida region was the tenth most traffic-congested metropolitan area in the world in 2016. In the United States, South Florida was the fifth worst -- behind Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta.

Ric Katz, a public relations consultant who often represents urban planners and engineering firms on issues related to transit, acknowledges that rampant real estate development without proper planning played a huge part in the region’s current traffic mess.

“The reason we have the problems we have today is because of the bad decisions by elected officials in the county and in cities for the past 15 years or so,” says Katz, who worked as a public affairs manager for FDOT when it was still analyzing the Coastal Link. “They granted development rights for more people to live here, but we never required the transportation to support it.”

So will Brightline, commuter, and freight trains actually make vehicular traffic better or worse? Anticipating traffic tie-ups caused by some 100 trains per day crossing the FEC line by Ives Dairy Road just west of Aventura, FDOT is pursuing plans to demolish several Ojus businesses in order to build a flyover by that intersection (see “Overhead and Under Fire,” May 2016).

FDOT was performing a detailed traffic analysis of the proposed Tri-Rail Coastal Link. But now that Coastal Link is on hold, pending negotiations with All Aboard Florida, so is the study, states FDOT spokeswoman Ivette Ruiz-Paz in an e-mail to the BT.

On the other hand, several reports on Brightline’s potential impact were prepared by the Florida East Coast Railway and Florida East Coast Industries.

An October 2012 report from the FEC Railway predicts minimal disruptions from passing passenger trains. Whereas, the longer freight trains cause traffic delays of up to 308 seconds at cross streets, the FEC report states that the shorter and faster passenger trains will only stop traffic for 10-80 seconds, depending on the road and time of day.

CoverStory_6Another report, commissioned by Florida East Coast Industries in May 2015 and prepared by the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey planning and engineering firm, predicts Brightline will attract three million riders in 2018, a figure that would amount to roughly 8200 riders per day. By the year 2020 (assuming Brightline’s route to Orlando has been established by then), the report projects that more than 5.3 million riders will use Brightline, or around 14,650 riders per day.

Of those 5.3 million predicted Brightline riders, about 2.8 million (around 7700 daily) would use the service to commute between South Florida’s downtown areas, and approximately 2.5 million riders (about 6900 a day) would use the service to travel back and forth from South Florida to Orlando. That same report predicts that Brightline will rake in $293.6 million in 2020 alone if ticket prices range from $18 to $145 for VIPs. (In contrast, Tri-Rail tickets range from $2.50 for a one-way short trip to $11.50 for a round-trip Miami-to-Magnolia Park journey.)

“All Aboard Florida can provide travel time savings of 25 percent to 50 percent when compared to existing surface modes (auto, bus, and rail) and with a journey time of around three hours from Orlando to Miami is competitive with air on door-to-door travel times,” states the Louis Berger Group report. “There is no comparable service to All Aboard Florida for intercity travel in the existing market.”

Even though Tri-Rail’s tracks are about 11 miles west of the booming Biscayne Corridor, 4.2 million people used the passenger service in 2016, according to statistics provided by SFRTA, or 11,520 riders per day. About two years ago, SFRTA predicted that at least 2000 more people would use Tri-Rail daily once its station is open at the MiamiCentral complex, and another 30,000 people would use the Coastal Link once it’s running.

Those ridership numbers are minuscule compared to the amount of use Miami-Dade County’s tolled expressways get. According to the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, 471.7 million trips were recorded by MDX’s toll system in 2016. Daily transactions, according to that same financial report, were about 1.3 million in 2016.

Marta Viciedo of Transit Alliance Miami doesn’t expect Brightline or Coastal Link to markedly improve traffic congestion. Instead, it’ll be another mobility option for people who live, work, and visit South Florida. “If your only option is to be stuck on that highway, then you have a problem if you need to get to downtown Miami,” she says. But if you can ride a train, utilize a private car service like Uber or Lyft, pedal a bike safely, or take an express bus, Viciedo explains, “then you have a sufficient transportation network.”

When given the choice, most locals will continue to pick cars, predicts Hamidreza Asgari, a research associate with Florida International University’s Lehman Center for Transportation Research.

“Here in the State of Florida, people are auto-dependent,” Asgari explains. “Even if they don’t have a car, they rent a car. That’s the nature of Miami.” To change that, locals must be persuaded to change their thinking.

CoverStory_7A great motivator could be the fact that Miami-Dade, like many parts of the nation, no longer has the space to build more roadways. “We’re reaching a saturation point of driving because we really can’t fit any more cars on the road,” says FAU’s John Renne.

This is particularly apparent within the Biscayne Corridor, says consultant Ric Katz. “Biscayne Boulevard/U.S. 1 is overused. It’s beyond capacity. There’s not enough room to add more lanes and allow cars to get further south,” Katz says. But, he adds, “We already have a rail corridor and we need to use the rail corridor. We’ve got to exploit it to the fullest extent.”

What’s highly unusual is the fact that the entity working to modernize this existing rail corridor is a private company, notes Renne of FAU. “There are a couple of privately owned boutique rail lines that are more of a tourist sort of thing,” Renne offers. Full-blown train systems are controlled by government agencies that are at least partly backed by taxpayer dollars. Except in the case of Brightline. “That’s a very unique arrangement that doesn’t exist in the U.S.,” Renne says.

In the 19th century, private companies owning passenger railroads was standard practice. Among those companies was the original Florida East Coast Railway, founded by Henry Flagler, which laid tracks from northern Florida to Fort Dallas on the Miami River in the 1890s. Those tracks allowed passenger trains to ferry more people into swampy South Florida, thus commencing the region’s transition from scattered frontier farming settlements to a metropolitan area. It was also those tracks, and Flagler himself, that led to the incorporation of the city in 1896.

As the automobile became more popular, trains became less profitable. “They [trains] started losing a lot of money,” Renne says. The FEC Railway itself stopped passenger service into Miami in 1968.

In the 1980s, two taxpayer-supported transit rail systems were created. In 1984, Dade County’s $1 billion Metrorail system was unveiled. In 1989 the Tri-Rail commuter train was established along an 81-mile track that ran through various industrial areas in the tri-counties, all of it west of I-95.

The 1980s was also when the idea of building a bullet train between Orlando and Miami emerged. The concept, which would cost billions of dollars to build, was often ridiculed by critics, among them Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen who once called it a “200-mph rolling disaster.”

In May 2012, the bullet train notion was replaced by a “high-speed train” when Florida East Coast Industries executives announced the formation of All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary that would strive to forge an express line between Miami and Orlando.

Back then, Florida East Coast Industries and Florida East Coast Railway were, while separate business entities, still the same company. That’s not the case anymore.


ICoverStory_8n May 2007, FEC Railway was bought for $3.5 billion by Fortress Investment Group, a New York-based company that manages billions of dollars in assets and investments.

Nearly a decade later, in March 2017, Fortress Investments sold off the FEC Railway and its freight operation to Groupo Mexico, a Mexican mining company, for $2.1 billion.

However, Fortress Investment still owns FECI, All Aboard Florida, Brightline’s trains, and Brightline’s stations. Early last year, Softbank, headed by Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, announced it was going to acquire Fortress Investments for $3.3. billion. (Son, an avid futurist fascinated by technology and artificial intelligence, reportedly promised President Donald Trump a year ago that he would invest $50 billion in the U.S.) As of deadline, Softbank’s acquisition of Fortress Investments was still pending.

Although FECI and FEC Railway are now completely separate companies, they remain partners. “All Aboard Florida has a passenger easement over the Florida East Coast Railway to operate passenger service,” clarifies Robert Ledoux, senior vice president of FEC Railway in an e-mail to the BT. “Florida East Coast Railway and All Aboard Florida have an agreement that covers maintenance and dispatching of trains over the corridor.”

This means that All Aboard Florida still has plenty of leverage in determining what happens on the FEC tracks in the future. “They [All Aboard Florida] are in a powerful position,” FAU’s Renne says.

This also means government officials will likely need to partner with All Aboard Florida if they want to see robust passenger service, Ric Katz says. This includes the possibility of All Aboard Florida becoming a taxpayer-supported endeavor. “We may need to figure out how to subsidize a private company,” he says.

That sort of scenario is despised by rail critics, including Citizens Against Rail Expansion, which already calls Brightline a government-subsidized venture. In a December 23 Herald column, Carl Hiaasen blasted Brightline as hard as he once did the bullet train. Brightline, he insists, is doomed to fail, and taxpayers will likely be left to bail it out.

“Brightline’s parent firm...has said the rail trip from downtown Miami will take about three hours. That’s two hours longer than a nonstop flight, of which there are many daily, offering seats as cheap as $81-- a price that Brightline can’t sustainably match,” Hiaasen wrote. “If you’re someone who likes to drive, you can rent a car in Miami and take your family directly to the Magic Kingdom. Or you can buy them all train tickets to the Orlando airport and rent a car there, spending a lot more money to arrive at the theme park in roughly the same time.”

CoverStory_9But All Aboard Florida won’t just be earning income from tickets. There’s also real estate. Aside from MiamiCentral’s apartments and retail, All Aboard Florida is also building Park-Line, a 24-story apartment building with 290 units, right next to its 60,000-square foot West Palm Beach Station. The company is also reportedly planning apartments near Brightline’s two-story Fort Lauderdale station.

How much FECI will charge in rent at these buildings has yet to be revealed. Renne, though, suspects that residential rents at Brightline stations will probably be higher than average. “In these locations, [apartments] will not be all that affordable because market forces will drive up rents because people will want to be in those locations,” the FAU associate professor explains. “It’s a matter of supply and demand. There’s a lot of demand, and a small supply.”

Should the commuter line Coastal Link move forward, intensive mixed-use development will likely be encouraged near the stations, adds Alice Bravo of Miami-Dade Transit. It isn’t just about rewarding property owners for building a station on their property, she explains. It’s also about promoting the sort of development that encourages the use of rail transit. “If you think about it, you’re building these projects, you have to have a healthy ridership, you have to [encourage] cars off the road,” Bravo says. In order for that to happen, “you have to have density at these stations for it to be a success.”

Bravo says the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization will be holding workshops explaining that formula -- not that all stations should have mega-projects. “It has to match with the surroundings in some way,” Bravo says. “You don’t want to have single-family homes and 80-story buildings” next to each other.

A Coastal Link commuter station is already an amenity coveted by developers. For example, the Podolsky family (another client of Ric Katz) has proposed building a rail station for its 7.2-million-square-foot Eastside Ridge project near Biscayne Boulevard and NE 54th Street.

Turnberry Associates, headed by siblings Jeffrey and Jackie Soffer, owns Aventura Mall and is developing the 183-acre SoLeMia in North Miami just south of FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus. Although the expanding Aventura Mall and SoLeMia are across Biscayne Boulevard from the FEC Railway, the Soffers are interested in creating a connection between those properties and any future stations, perhaps via pedestrian bridge, Commissioner Sally Heyman reports. Katz and Bravo have also heard the Soffers are interested in somehow incorporating Coastal Link into their properties. (Turnberry Associates didn’t respond to requests for comment by deadline.)

Still, it’s not enough to just have a station, or development near a station, to encourage people to use rail, Katz says. Those who live more than a mile from a station still have to get there somehow, either by shuttles or other forms of transportation. Otherwise, Katz says, locals and visitors will continue to rely on automobiles.

Jeremy Larkin, co-chairman of NAI Miami Commercial Real Estate Services, contends that some people won’t need much more help from the government to seek other ways of getting around. He notes that his employees and clients who live in Broward but who need to regularly commute to downtown Miami already use Tri-Rail and Metrorail.

Even without a commuter line, a Tri-Rail station in MiamiCentral will be a big convenience. “It will be a viable alternative for people who have to commute to those areas,” he says. “You will see a lot of business people and day-trippers for sure. If there’s a concert up there at the Meyer Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, my wife and I will take the Brightline to get there and then take the train back to Miami.”

In the end, Larkin says, worsening traffic will encourage more locals to look at other ways of getting around. “There are two ways to get people to change their habits,” he explains, “massive reward or massive pain.”

 

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