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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
February 2019

The First Coastal Link commuter train station is still a toss-up

TStation_1he first commuter train station between downtown Miami and Broward County will likely be located near the Miami Design District, beneath the Interstate 195 overpass. This, in spite of a recent push by Wynwood-area property owners to have a passenger station built closer to their part of Miami.

Such a station would be the first step in a long journey to bring rail service to commuters along the Biscayne Corridor.

But Wynwood is not out of the running. The I-195 station will start out as a temporary stop while transit officials from Miami-Dade County, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority figure out a permanent spot somewhere near Midtown Miami.

Before any new train stations, temporary or permanent, are built along the Florida East Coast (FEC) railroad tracks, transit officials will need the cooperation of Fortress Investment Group, a New York-based investment firm that owns Brightline, the express train service now running between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. (Brightline, incidentally, will be rebranded Virgin Trains USA later this year. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group entered into a strategic partnership with Fortress Investment Group last November and now owns a minority stake in Brightline, according to media reports.)

The “demonstration station,” as county transit officials call it, will be a crucial development toward creating the publicly financed Tri-Rail Coastal Link, if it’s ever built. Tri-Rail Coastal Link is a proposed 28-stop commuter train service that would operate from downtown Miami to Jupiter in northern Palm Beach County.

Unlike the current Tri-Rail system, which runs on tracks far west of I-95, Tri-Rail Coastal Link is envisioned to operate on the FEC tracks, with stops along the traffic-choked Biscayne Corridor in places like Midtown Miami, the Upper Eastside, North Miami, North Miami Beach, and Aventura.

Tri-Rail Coastal Link’s southern terminus is projected to open this summer within the 3 million-square-foot MiamiCentral depot complex downtown. It’s the same complex from which Brightline has operated since last May, and which by 2020 will include mixed-use high-rise towers with offices, retail, and more than 800 apartment units.

Station_2Nevertheless, there’s no guarantee that Fortress Investment Group, which owns MiamiCentral, will also share the rest of the FEC tracks with a commuter service. Fortress has an exclusive contract with Grupo Mexico’s Florida East Coast Railroad, the company that actually owns the tracks and also uses them to run freight trains. And Fortress has other priorities right now, including extending the express train service to Orlando by 2022 and, under the Virgin Trains USA moniker, to other locations like Tampa, South Carolina, Southern California, and Las Vegas.

In short, Fortress Investment Group’s cooperation is needed before a commuter train service with stops in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties can be established. Currently, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA), a state-created agency that oversees Tri-Rail, is slated to run the commuter service for those three counties.

“The big thing before anything can be done is that [Fortress] has to be on board and supportive of what we implement,” says Alice Bravo, the director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Transit and Public Works.

Fortress Investment Group’s executives might be close to making that decision. Bravo tells the BT that the company is conducting internal studies on the feasibility of sharing the same train tracks now used by Brightline and freight trains with Tri-Rail Coastal Link. Bravo says the county expects to see the conclusions of that study as early as this month.

Brightline spokeswoman Ali Soule confirms that her bosses are having discussions with the three counties and SFRTA. Soule wouldn’t discuss the Fortress train study, except to acknowledge that it’s still under way.

Steven Abrams, SFRTA’s executive director, also acknowledges that his organization is in talks with Brightline’s owners. “SFRTA is in ongoing discussions with Brightline about working together on their corridor. In the meantime, we are working diligently to open at MiamiCentral, which would be the first station of the Tri-Rail Coastal Link,” he states in an e-mail to the BT.

Station_3The creation of a temporary station beneath the I-195 was endorsed in April 2018 by the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization, an agency governed by local elected officials and governor appointees that helps determine the county’s transportation policy. County officials refer to Miami-Dade’s portion of the proposed Tri-Rail Coastal Link along the FEC tracks as the “Northeast Corridor.”

There’s already a busy trolley stop at NE 2nd Avenue beneath the I-195 expressway, as well as nearby City of Miami-owned parking lots. Just north of this trolley stop is the bustling Miami Design District, an area that has been transformed into a luxury shopping destination by developer Craig Robins and French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. To the south is Midtown Miami.

A train station near NE 36th Street was advocated earlier in a Tri-Rail study, thanks to its close proximity to Midtown Miami, which is rapidly growing with a number of residential high-rises, restaurants, stores, and the recently completed Hyde Hotel. That study also projected that 15,253 people would live within a half-mile of a NE 36th Street station by 2035.

Wynwood property owners also covet a Tri-Rail Coastal Link station to serve Wynwood and Edgewater, two neighborhoods filling up with new residential towers. Toward that end, the Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID) paid planner Cesar Garcia-Pons $25,000 to study the growth potentials within a half-mile radius of NE 29th Street and NE 36th Street by the railroad tracks. The results of that study were unveiled during a Wynwood BID meeting this past October.

According to the Garcia-Pons report, there are already 11.8 million square feet of residential and commercial buildings within a half mile of NE 36th Street’s railway intersection. On top of that, the area can accommodate another 36.5 million square feet of new residences, restaurants, stores, offices, hotels, and more.

That’s still puny compared to the amount of new construction that can take place within a half-mile of the NE 29th Street railway intersection. Here, there are already 14.4 million square feet of domiciles and places of commerce. And the zoning and land exist to accommodate another 57.7 million square feet of development, according to the Garcia-Pons study.

Midtown Miami overlaps within the two half-mile radiuses. But if the Midtown Miami overlap is excluded, the Garcia-Pons report states that “the southern portion of the 29th Street Station Area has a 300 percent higher future potential development capacity than its equivalent northern portion of the 36th Street Station Area.”

More development means more people. At its full development potential, Midtown Miami will have a population of 53,500 residents, the Garcia-Pons report states, and its businesses will employ 14,100 people. The Wynwood/Edgewater sector will have 52,400 people and 13,800 employees. And the Miami Design District? It’ll have no more than 16,100 people and 4200 employees.

Three of the four corners at the NE 29th Street railroad tracks intersection are already occupied by massive buildings. Two of those buildings -- the 387-unit Midtown 8 and the 720-unit Midtown East -- are still under construction. Midtown 29, a 309-unit, 20-story luxury apartment building was completed a year ago. That leaves the 24,288-square-foot vacant parcel at 100 NE 29th St., owned by Freddy Royero of Miami Beach, as the remaining place at that intersection where a train station could be built.

During the October 2018 Wynwood BID meeting, the group’s vice chair, Albert Garcia, suggested looking a little further south, at the 27th Street railway intersection, where the four corners are occupied by the Gary Nader Art Centre, a one-story office space plaza owned by Block Capital and Cabi Developers, Miller Machinery & Supply, and a two-story office warehouse owned by the Rammos family. During the meeting, Garcia claimed that the “cluster of property owners” at this intersection are “willing to collaborate in a public-private function” in order to bring a train station to the area.

Indeed, Miami-Dade County aims to encourage mixed-use development with residential and commercial at future train stations as a means to ensure ridership for the future commuter train.

Since the release of the Garcia-Pons reports, Miami-Dade and SFRTA officials have included the Wynwood/Edgewater area as the possible future location for the train station. Nevertheless, the I-195 underpass is still the preferred location for a temporary station, says Alice Bravo of Miami-Dade Transit.

For one thing, there’s no need to build a roof, thanks to the highway overhead. All that needs to be built is a train platform. “Even then it’s going to cost us a few million dollars to build it,” she explains.

There also can’t be train stations in both Wynwood and the Design District. “They’re probably too close, given the operational issues of acceleration and deacceleration with commuter rail,” Bravo tells the BT. “Train stations are supposed to be three or four miles apart.”

As for Fortress Investment Group, Bravo says she’s confident the private company will make a deal that will allow a commuter train service to share the tracks with Brightline.

“They really see the benefits of having the intermediate stops,” Bravo says. “We just have to work out the arrangement for it.”

 

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