Tourism & Cruises

Cruise passengers on track to ride Brightline trains to PortMiami with county station

A Brightline train could be running to PortMiami in 2020 under a proposed deal with Miami-Dade County. The for-profit rail company plans to rename its trains under the Virgin brand next year as well.
A Brightline train could be running to PortMiami in 2020 under a proposed deal with Miami-Dade County. The for-profit rail company plans to rename its trains under the Virgin brand next year as well. Miami Herald File

Plans advanced Thursday for a Brightline train station for cruise passengers at PortMiami, with Miami-Dade moving closer to approving a depot connecting the world’s busiest cruise dock to a for-profit railroad with plans to extend as far north as Orlando.

The County Commission’s Ports committee on Thursday endorsed a draft deal between the company and Miami-Dade, which involves $5.2 million in public money for a $15.4 million facility. Brightline, the for-profit rail company that’s planning to bring the Virgin brand to its trains next year, would build the seaside station and make it available to passengers for all cruise companies. Virgin, a separate company run by Richard Branson, plans to bring its first cruise ship to PortMiami in April.

The trains would run about two miles on existing cargo tracks to Brightline’s MiamiCentral station in downtown Miami, where passengers could then board the company’s express trains running to West Palm Beach. The company, a subsidiary of the Fortress Investment Group conglomerate, plans to expand the for-profit rail line to Orlando. It’s a route PortMiami sees as a new funnel for cruise passengers from the South Florida market.

“They can hand over their bags at the Fort Lauderdale station, the West Palm Beach station, the Orlando station, and the passenger won’t see his or her bags until he or she gets into their cabin,” said Juan Kuryla, the county’s port director.

While Miami-Dade would put up money to help build the 20,500-square-foot building, the draft agreement calls for Brightline to generate millions more in rent and fees to the port. The port would collect a $2 fee for each train passenger arriving at the new station, and Brightline agreed to make up the difference if those payments don’t total $7 million after five years. From there, the fees continue and minimum amounts increase over the next 30 years. A county memo said the port should expect to collect $49 million from the fees and rent, charged at $5.75 a foot to start.

The agreement authorizes Mayor Carlos Gimenez to negotiate a final deal with the new Fortress entity, Virgin Trains USA. That contract then would come back to the commission for a final vote.

It would be the third infusion of county dollars for a Brightline station. In 2015, Miami-Dade, Miami and Tri-Rail agreed to pay about $69 million to build a Tri-Rail platform at Brightline’s Miami Central station in downtown Miami. Brightline hasn’t completed the federally required safety requirements to allow Tri-Rail rains to begin using that service.

On Oct. 11, Miami-Dade commissioners held an emergency meeting to approve spending $76 million in transit funds on a new Brightline station connecting to the Aventura Mall. The company agreed to charge Aventura passengers 65 percent of the Fort Lauderdale fare, making a one-way ticket just under $10.

No prices were discussed for the PortMiami rides. Jose Gonzalez, a top executive at Fortress subsidiary Florida East Coast Industries, said the company hopes to open the port station by the end of 2020. The initial plan is to run two trains per day, meaning four crossings through downtown Miami.

“For downtown, it wouldn’t be much delay,” Gonzalez said. “Our crossings take less than 60 seconds. It’s not like a freight train.”

Doug Hanks covers Miami-Dade government for the Herald. He’s worked at the paper for nearly 20 years, covering real estate, tourism and the economy before joining the Metro desk in 2014.
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