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For cross-county commuters, the future may be brighter

Brightline’s MiamiCentral terminal would incorporate retail, office and rental-residence spaces and connect the preexisting public train system to Metrorail, Metrobus and Tri-Rail.
Brightline’s MiamiCentral terminal would incorporate retail, office and rental-residence spaces and connect the preexisting public train system to Metrorail, Metrobus and Tri-Rail. Rendering via All Aboard Florida

In the near future, downtown Miami workers may find themselves living in West Palm Beach or Broward, thanks to the Brightline express train service slated to begin this summer.

“National real estate research shows young professionals buy or rent housing based heavily on walkability or easy commutes to work. Brightline will open the market for lesser-priced housing to the north of downtown Miami because commutes become more palatable,” said Jonathan Miller of Miller Samuel, which produces real estate market reports for brokerage Douglas Elliman.

The price difference: The average monthly rental price in downtown Miami/Brickell for a one-bedroom apartment is about $2,000, according to an analysis for EWM Realtors. Downtown Fort Lauderdale and downtown West Palm are relative bargains, with prices at $1,930 and $1,477 respectively.

The same goes for sales prices. Despite the abundance of condominium construction in downtown Miami and the new inventory that flooded the market in 2016, purchase prices for downtown housing also are significantly higher in Miami than in the other counties. As of the fourth quarter of 2016, downtown Miami prices averaged $438 per square foot, according to a report from Miami’s Downtown Development Authority. That came out to a median price for a one-bedroom condo of $275,000, according to EWM.

In downtown Fort Lauderdale, the median price for a one-bedroom was $287,000, or an average of $317 per square foot, with buyers getting more space for fewer dollars, according to EWM. In downtown West Palm Beach, the median price was $169,000, or $201 per square foot.

“As prices have gone up in downtown Miami, we have seen an evolution of new markets to north — Fort Lauderdale, Sunny Isles, Boca Raton — where you can get more bang for your buck,” said Jay Parker, CEO of Douglas Elliman Florida. “As you move west in the counties, prices shift significantly. People are looking for alternatives, and those areas may be a more affordable an option, too.”

The problem for would-be commuters: The current drive between downtown Miami and Fort Lauderdale or West Palm is long, slow and sometimes maddening on often-choked I-95.

Brightline promises to cut both time and trauma, estimating its riders will travel from West Palm Beach to Miami in one hour and from Fort Lauderdale to Miami in 30 minutes in new rail cars with wi-fi access. Unlike the Tri-Rail commuter line, Brightline runs express trains from downtown-to-downtown, without intermediate stops.

Once service begins, commuting from downtown to downtown and other areas near Brightline stations may become more attractive.

Real estate veteran Ron Shuffield thinks the service could be a game-changer. “I think the train will change decisions about where people live and what jobs they take,” said Shuffield, president & CEO of EWM Realtors.

Neighborhoods such as Middle River Terrace and Old Progresso just north of downtown Fort Lauderdale are seeing a resurgence in housing aimed at young professionals. In Miami-Dade, trendy neighborhoods such as Wynwood and Edgewater near Brightline’s new MiamiCentral Station provide more affordable housing options, too, as do neighborhoods like West Little River and Miami Shores.

“Some young people were priced out of downtowns and have moved to suburbs but really want to live closer in,” Miller said. “They will have more options.”

In Miami, the Brightline terminal, called MiamiCentral, is designed to incorporate retail and office space and eventually will include 800 rental residences slated to open in early 2019. Riders will be able to connect to Metrorail, Metrobus and Tri-Rail. In West Palm Beach, Brightline developer/operator All Aboard Florida is building 290 rental apartments, slated to open in mid-2018. Future plans call for apartment development near the Fort Lauderdale station.

“How Brightline will affect housing decisions will be pretty personal to every individual,” said John Guitar, senior vice president of business development for Brightline. “I think values near the station will increase. But once we’re up and running, we will see how people react to it.”

For many, commuting via Brightline will cut costs of driving and parking plus the hassle and lost time of driving. But figuring out how the hard costs of driving versus commuting will compare will have to wait until Brightline announces its prices in late spring or early summer.

None of it can come too soon for healthcare executive Joe Sous. He spends nearly 90 minutes each way commuting from his home in west Boca Raton to his job at Miami Jewish Health Systems in east Miami-Dade County.

“It’s only 50 miles door to door, but it’s not the miles that matter, it’s the time,” Sous said. He is seriously considering using the new rail service: “How long does [the] commute take from point to point on the train versus by car? We will look at everything, but the Brightline is an enticement for those of us who like suburban areas, or want to live north.”

Tri-county residents may find they hop aboard to catch a play or Heat game, said Arden Karson, senior managing director in South Florida for CBRE Group. “Overall it makes living in South Florida more desirable and it will make it easier for employers to attract employees.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the number of rental units at MiamiCentral.

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