Miami-Dade County

Miami-Orlando train track may host Tri-Rail commuter trains to downtown

Tri-Rail heading north arrives at the Tri-Rail/Metrorail transfer station in Hialeah.
Tri-Rail heading north arrives at the Tri-Rail/Metrorail transfer station in Hialeah. EL Nuevo Herald

Tri-Rail, the commuter service that has been running trains on the CSX track west of Interstate 95 between Palm Beach County and Miami since late last century, is now working on a major new plan: to run trains into downtown Miami beginning in late 2016 or early 2017.

Jack Stephens, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, said the plan calls for running the trains on a stretch of the same track that would be used by a planned Miami-Orlando passenger service.

The plan requires construction of a spur connecting the CSX track that Tri-Rail uses to the Florida East Coast Railway track. Though the spur is slated to be built by the Florida Department of Transportation, Tri-Rail is seeking an additional $69 million — money that would be needed within eight weeks to mesh with the construction schedule set for the Miami-Orlando service, known as All Aboard Florida. The money would be used to build Tri-Rail train platforms plus other enhancements such as ticket-vending machines.

Stephens said this is the best chance Tri-Rail has to run trains straight into downtown Miami. He said if transportation authorities miss this opportunity, Tri-Rail may never be able to operate trains into downtown Miami because costs would be prohibitive in the future. At most, he added, Tri-Rail would only be able to set up a station in mid-town Miami, but not downtown.

Tri-Rail expects funding to come from the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County and Miami’s Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency. Tri-Rail has yet to formally request any funds from the county. The plan did come up in a conversation in which Tri-Rail floated the idea of tapping CRA dollars.

Clarence Woods, executive director of the Southeast Overtown/Park West CRA, said he's had two conversations with Tri-Rail and as of Thursday hadn't received any formal proposals. That may be because CRA Chairman Keon Hardemon has told Tri-Rail that the CRA shouldn't be expected to foot the entire $48 million bill.

“He's not too keen on that,” Woods said. “The chair is determined to make sure other agencies pony up.”

If the CRA does commit funds, they would come in the form of property tax rebates.

According to City of Miami officials, the Florida Department of Transportation has agreed to pump $21 million into the project, leaving Tri-Rail with a $48 million hole to fill.

Alice Bravo, Miami's deputy city manager, said she met with a Tri-Rail representative Wednesday. She said the public funding being discussed, if it flies, would involve funds from the CRA, with a percentage also supplied by the city and county, which also would receive a small percentage of property taxes contributed by the Miami-Orlando train project.

Bravo said there's no price tag on the city's possible commitment.

That train to Orlando will run on a track east of I-95 starting in downtown Miami. It will open in two phases: Miami to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in late 2016, extending to Orlando International Airport in 2017.

Construction of the All Aboard Florida Miami station has begun next to the Metrorail/Metromover Government Center hub. A new track, soon to be built, will stretch north from that station to an existing Florida East Coast Railway track running from PortMiami to 71st Street, where a spur turns westward to the FEC Hialeah Railyard and north to Jacksonville. It is currently used by freight trains.

The FEC track, which stretches east of I-95 largely along the eastern shore, runs through the downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Stephens said the Florida Department of Transportation is about to begin building the track connecting the CSX and FEC lines where they intersect near the Metrorail/Tri-Rail transfer station near Northwest 79th Street.

“It became clear that it was an opportunity for us to be able to get Tri-Rail directly into downtown Miami,” Stephens said.

Tri-Rail officials then crafted a plan to extend the service to downtown Miami once the CSX-FEC connector track is completed and the first phase of All Aboard Florida is built between Miami and West Palm Beach.

“If this happens it’ll be great for me,” said Blanca Heredia, a commuter who lives in Miami but travels regularly on Tri-Rail to Boca Raton to visit her daughters.

Currently, Heredia boards Metrorail at a Government Center in Miami and then travels to the Tri-Rail transfer station where she boards Tri-Rail northbound trains. On the return trip, she transfers to Metrorail and then travels backs down to Government Center.

“If Tri-Rail goes to Government Center my trip would be so much easier,” she said.

Tri-Rail runs 50 trains each weekday between Mangonia Park Station in Palm Beach County and Hialeah Market/Miami Airport Station in Miami-Dade County, using the CSX track west of I-95.

If the downtown Miami plan is successful, Tri-Rail will divide roughly equally its 50 weekday trains between downtown Miami and the new station at the Miami Intermodal Center near Miami International Airport.

“Every other train would go to the different locations, one to the MIC and the next to downtown Miami,” said Stephens.

Miami Herald staff writers David Smiley and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.