Miami-Dade County

Tri-Rail would offer free rides to Overtown district residents in station deal

A Tri Rail train in this undated file photo. Tri Rail wants to expand to downtown Miami, and is pushing for a basket of public funds to make it happen.
A Tri Rail train in this undated file photo. Tri Rail wants to expand to downtown Miami, and is pushing for a basket of public funds to make it happen. Miami Herald

Tri-Rail would offer free passes to large numbers of Overtown residents in exchange for public funding of a new Miami station, part of a deal aimed at piecing together $69 million in tax dollars to bring the commuter line to a privately funded train depot downtown.

The largely state-funded Tri-Rail would offer free passes to residents inside Miami’s Overtown/Park West taxing district in exchange for extracting about $30 million from the entity for construction of a Tri-Rail platform in All Aboard Florida’s rail complex that’s about to begin construction in downtown Miami.

Tri-Rail and All Aboard, a subsidiary of the Florida East Coast Industries real estate company, want to bring the tax-funded commuter line to the station as a way to expand Tri-Rail’s reach into the heart of downtown Miami. At the moment, commuters from downtown must take Miami-Dade’s Metrorail line nine miles to the Hialeah area to link up with Tri-Rail, which runs trains to just north of West Palm Beach. The proposed addition to All Aboard would let Tri-Rail riders bypass Metrorail’s six stops and instead take a direct line from downtown to the rail line’s northern points.

“It’s a one-seat ride,” said Tri-Rail director Jack Stephens.

City officials haven’t shared the details of how Tri-Rail would offer free rides to residents within the Overtown district, but it was described as a significant program that would further the district’s mission to alleviate poverty. Tri-Rail executives could propose income requirements that would limit the passes to people making a certain amount of money, or restrict it to residents at the time of the funding approval.

City officials said Tuesday they weren’t aware of any proposed restrictions. Stephens said the plan was to offer the free passes for as long as the funding support was in place, which likely would be for decades. The money would come from the All Aboard station’s property-tax payments.

Like other Community Redevelopment Agencies, the Overtown CRA diverts new property taxes from the general funds of both the county and its hometown city (in this case, Miami) to support projects for the district.

“This is not about free rides,” said Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, whose district seat representing the Overtown area also makes him chairman of the Overtown CRA. “This is about giving reliable transportation to people who are stuck in poverty. ... These are people who cannot use Uber. These are people stuck in a cab going short distances.”

Fares for Tri-Rail already make up just 12 percent of the commuter line’s revenue, with state, federal and county dollars from the tri-county region subsidizing the system’s $106 million yearly operating budget, according to the service’s latest financial statement.

Tri-Rail officials noted they already offer reduced fares for a number of groups, including veterans, students, senior citizens and others, so the addition of at least some of the Overtown district’s 10,000 residents wouldn’t present a financial strain. Numerous cities also already provide free trolley services, and Miami-Dade does not charge for Metromover, which ferries about 9 million passengers a year.

Facing a key vote in Miami later this week, Tri-Rail on Tuesday announced the lifting of a bureaucratic logjam that had prevented it from opening a long-planned station at Miami International Airport. Stephens said the Tri-Rail station at the Miami Intermodal Center next to MIA would be up and running by the end of April.

Miami-Dade officials have cleared the way to contribute about $8 million to the downtown Tri-Rail station, with an oversight board voting to tap a $55 million reserve from a special countywide transit tax. Tri-Rail also wants $11 million from Miami itself, but the city’s mayor, Tomás Regalado, is vowing to veto a funding package that enjoys support from some city commissioners. At a workshop Tuesday afternoon, Regalado questioned the quick grab for city funds while Miami-Dade isn’t being asked to contribute more.

“I believe this should be done,” he said of the Tri-Rail station. “What I think is not fair is within three weeks’ time, suddenly someone decides this is a good idea.” Regalado said Miami-Dade should consider tapping its gas tax to generate more dollars for Tri-Rail, saying Miami needs its money for public-safety projects.

Also at the meeting, Commissioner Francis Suarez said his “preference” was to not use Miami’s general fund for the Tri-Rail station. The statement could be significant, since Suarez’s support for the Miami funding package was seen as crucial for overriding a Regalado veto once the city funding package comes up for a vote Thursday. Four of the five city commissioners are needed to override a veto. But Suarez said he hasn’t made up his mind, and emphasized the benefits of Tri-Rail coming to downtown.

“I think this is an opportunity we can’t pass up,” he said.

All Aboard said it needs a decision on the Tri-Rail expansion within weeks so it can alter construction plans to accommodate a second rail line. By using All Aboard’s depot and track rights-of-way, Tri-Rail says it can get to downtown for a tiny fraction of the cost it would otherwise need. Supporters also see the project as a way to guarantee All Aboard can inject new life and commerce into downtown’s commercial district.

Without Tri-Rail, said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, “it doesn’t become a Grand Central Station. It becomes Central Station.”

Should Miami not approve the $11 million portion of the funding package, Tri-Rail could pursue more money from the CRA (which is controlled by the city commission but not subject to a Regalado veto), the county or the state, which is already expected to contribute about $3 million. All Aboard also could play a role, since it is the developer that would construct the Tri-Rail station within its complex.

The tug-of-war is complicated by Miami-Dade politics, with Regalado’s daughter, school board member Raquel Regalado, challenging Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in the 2016 county mayoral race. Gimenez endorses the Tri-Rail extension and the county funding, while Raquel Regalado joined her father in opposition. At Tuesday’s workshop, Mayor Regalado made a reference to his daughter’s campaign against a property-tax increase for a new county courthouse — a measure that failed last fall despite supporters pointing to an emergency from the current courthouse’s shabby condition.

“It kind of looks to me like we’re back in the courthouse referendum,” he said. “We need to do this because it’s a huge crisis.”

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