Miami-Dade officials have begun talks with a company tied to the All Aboard Florida railway about expanding a different set of tracks to the site of a massive mall theme park planned near Miami Lakes.
The preliminary talks involve cargo tracks serving rock-mining quarries in western Miami-Dade being extended north along Florida’s Turnpike until they get close enough to serve American Dream Miami, the 200-acre entertainment and shopping complex that would be the largest mall in the United States. The existing cargo rail already connects to other rail lines that link up near Miami International Airport, a hub where both Metrorail and Tri-Rail run trains throughout the region.
While officials involved say it’s too early to talk specifics, the concept would involve county government marshaling the funds needed to both expand and operate a new rail line at a time when revenue from Metrorail fares only cover about 30 cents of every dollar in its budget. It also would mean a historic expansion of passenger rail into the Miami-Dade suburbs, which county leaders promised in 2002 when voters adopted a half-percentage sales tax for transit expansion.
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“It’s not to the mall only. It’s to the whole northwest region,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, whose district includes the mall site where the Turnpike meets Interstate 75. “We need to make sure we stop building roads upon roads, and start moving people in a faster, better and more efficient way.”
We need to make sure we stop building roads upon roads, and start moving people in a faster, better and more efficient way.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz
The owner of the tracks is Florida East Coast Railway, a company that traces its routes to Henry Flagler and is part of the corporate umbrella that is building the planned passenger line to the east known as All Aboard Florida. The company behind All Aboard is Florida East Coast Industries, and both are owned by Fortress Investment Group.
The cargo tracks slated to be transformed into All Aboard’s Miami-to-Orlando passenger line also connect to the western tracks. Those end at a quarry south of Okeechobee Road and west of the turnpike. Extending them along the turnpike to the proposed mall would require only a few additional miles of track.
An executive from Florida East Coast Industries attended a recent meeting with county officials on traffic concerns about the mall. He said the rail idea would dovetail with the company’s long-running efforts to extend rail north to serve a nearby rock mine that sits west of the proposed mall site.
The executive, Jose Gonzalez, said Florida East Coast Industries also plans its own massive industrial project on its land near the mall complex, which could ultimately include nine million square feet of warehouses, manufacturing outfits and other businesses.
“Can you say that again?” Diaz interjected.
“Nine million,” Gonzalez repeated, according to an audiotape of the meeting, which was recorded to comply with Florida’s open-records law.
“What we’re trying to do is get ahead and solve it now,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t want to wait for the traffic to get here.”
Talk of a rail extension to American Dream mirrors a similar effort by Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo to use existing cargo tracks that run alongside the Dolphin Expressway to bring commuter rail into the western suburbs. That plan involves using tracks owned by Florida East Coast’s local rival, CSX, and would not involve construction of new rail spurs. Tri-Rail is seen as the likely operator of the east-west route.
At the meeting on mall traffic, Bovo embraced the new rail initiative.
It’s music to my ears.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo
“It’s music to my ears, obviously,” he said.
His district includes Miami Lakes. Traffic tied to the mall has been a top concern since the moment last March when Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez revealed talks to bring the developer behind Minnesota’s Mall of America to the Miami area with a project that would be 40 percent larger than its Minneapolis counterpart.
Both rail initiatives face the same primary challenge: how to pay to both build and sustain a new rail line.
Diaz said Miami-Dade would need to explore a wide range of funding sources, including federal and state transportation grants, existing tax revenue and use of private dollars in what’s commonly referred to as a “private-public partnership” or “P3.” Under that scenario, a for-profit company typically provides upfront financing for a government project that it would then manage and maintain in exchange for a stream of tax dollars that can span decades.
“The future of P3 is here,” Diaz said. “And we need to look at those opportunities.”
Al Maloof, a lobbyist with Genovese, Joblove, and Battista who specializes in transportation issues, said a traditional rail system with fares in the $5-per-trip range would be destined to lose money in Northwest Miami-Dade. But he said a premium system geared toward a theme-park customer could sustain itself.
“You’re essentially talking about a trip to a theme park,” Maloof said. “Conceivably, you could pay a $20 or $25 fare.”