If Miami-Dade pays to bring Virgin trains to Aventura, will Tri-Rail get derailed?

Miami-Dade’s plan to earmark as much as $76 million to build a Virgin Trains station in Aventura has left many wondering: What about Tri-Rail?

The publicly owned commuter line has long been slated for a second route, known as Coastal Link, that would carry passengers along Florida East Coast rail’s tracks. As early as the 1990s, discussions have centered around taking passengers from Miami up to Jupiter.

Extending Tri-Rail to Aventura seemed to move closer to reality in 2015, after Miami and Miami-Dade joined with Florida to spend about $70 million building a downtown Tri-Rail depot inside the private train station opened last year by Brightline’s parent.

The plan was to eventually extend Tri-Rail along Florida East Coast rail tracks, creating Tri-Rail’s second commuter route. Meanwhile, the private Virgin, whose parent owns the FEC tracks, would make express stops to Orlando and beyond.

Now that Virgin (previously known as Brightline) wants its own local stop in a tax-funded station in Aventura, leaders of the county’s transit system are publicly raising doubts about whether the additional Tri-Rail leg is still viable.

“Is Brightline or is Tri-Rail? I just want a Coastal Link as quickly as possible,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Thursday.

“I think it puts a big question mark on Tri-Rail being able to do something,” said Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a county commissioner who also serves as chairman of the Tri-Rail board. “Really, the leader of the conversation for this corridor is Virgin.”

Javier Betancourt, executive director of the 15-member Citizens Independent Transportation Trust created to oversee the People’s Transportation Plan funded with the half-penny sales surtax, has sent a series of questions to CITT board members. Among them: whether Brightline has any intention of allowing Tri-Rail onto its tracks.

“We certainly still hope it will come to fruition,” he said. “And that the parties will negotiate an access fee to allow that to happen.”

Two years ago, when it was still called Brightline, the company was already signaling it was not eager to grant Tri-Rail access to its tracks. In 2017, Florida’s Transportation Department announced it was suspending a study on the Coastal Link after Miami-Dade was unable to reach a deal with Brightline to accommodate Tri-Rail trains alongside the existing tracks running northeast between Miami and Aventura. The company told county officials it might want to operate a commuter line itself.

“The Northeast corridor has been on hold,” Aileen Bouclé, director of the county’s transportation board, said during an August 2017 meeting. James Wolfe, head of the Transportation Department’s Miami office, wrote the mayor of Miami and Miami-Dade in early 2018 regarding Tri-Rail expansion: “The owner of that corridor is not currently interested in discussing access to the corridor.”

Now Virgin, which says its Aventura stop comes in response to local demand, wants to expand service within Miami-Dade’s northeast corridor.

The Virgin option would give Miami its first train ride directly to Aventura — while avoiding additional county expenditures on Tri-Rail. Tri-Rail service relies on federal and state funding for most of its $148 million budget, with fares accounting for just 13 cents of every revenue dollar in 2018, according to financial reports. In its most recent fiscal year, it reported an operating loss of $134 million; thanks to reserve allocations, Tri-Rail maintains a balanced budget. Ridership has remained essentially flat since full service kicked off a decade ago; Tri-Rail booked 4.3 million passengers in 2018 and 4.2 million in 2009. The government entity that operates Tri-Rail, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, would likely have to pay Virgin a hefty yearly fee to run trains on Virgin tracks.

Those figures are one reason why Tri-Rail just announced it would be raising fares for certain riders. An individual who travels round-trip in one zone will now pay $5 instead of $4.40; a round-trip ticket from Miami International Airport to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport will now cost $7.50 instead of $6.25.

Those fares will still be lower than the cost of a one-way ticket from MiamiCentral station to the proposed Aventura stop on Virgin. Under the current proposal, a one-way ticket from downtown to Virgin’s Aventura station would cost as much as $9.75.

For Larry Merritt, passenger operations manager at the Florida Department of Transportation and project manager of Coastal Link, the goal is simple: provide rail service, no matter who is driving the train.

“From our standpoint, it doesn’t matter who the operator is,” he said. “Our intent and the goal is commuter rail passenger service to tie together the 27 downtowns along that corridor from Jupiter to Miami. So who’s operating that — that doesn’t concern us.”

Alice Bravo, Miami-Dade’s Transportation director, says Tri-Rail and Virgin are not mutually exclusive. Tri-Rail executive director Steve Abrams has sent letters to the governments of Boca Raton and Miami-Dade asking that any new stations be required to allow Tri-Rail access — and has yet to receive a response. Virgin and Tri-Rail also have different types of equipment, meaning any new stations would have to be modified to accommodate Tri-Rail trains.

Virgin Trains chief spokesman Ben Porritt said Virgin and Tri-Rail can be complementary services. But he said a decision about granting access to an Aventura station, as well as one proposed in Boca Raton, would occur in a “separate conversation.”

The Aventura station, Porritt said, “creates a culture of rail here that over a period of time includes additional forms like Tri-Rail.”

Nobody involved is declaring the Tri-Rail Coastal Link dead, but advocates are casting the Aventura Virgin station as a sure thing over something that may or may not materialize.

“When a short-term solution that’s beneficial to the public becomes available, it’s something we can move forward with, while we continue to work on long-term projects like Coastal Link,” Bravo said.

“Ideally, we’d ultimately have both Tri-Rail and [Virgin],” said Craig Robins, the real estate developer behind the Design District, which would be waking distance from the proposed Tri-Rail Midtown stop. He’s also married to Jackie Soffer, whose company owns the Aventura Mall. “But getting a [Virgin] stop now in Aventura is a major step forward.”

This post has been updated.