Miami-Dade County

Miami Commission keeps Tri-Rail’s downtown dreams alive

Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado speaks at the Miami City Commission meeting on the topic of the Tri-Rail on Thursday, March 26, 2015.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado speaks at the Miami City Commission meeting on the topic of the Tri-Rail on Thursday, March 26, 2015. EL NUEVO HERALD

Keeping alive Tri-Rail’s dream of taking passengers all the way to downtown Miami, city commissioners on Thursday unanimously agreed to negotiate a $69 million, multi-agency funding package to connect the commuter line to a transit hub under construction near Government Center.

They also committed at least $5.5 million in transportation taxes toward the cause, which they said is crucial to alleviating gridlock on Miami’s streets.

“I think the entire community is waiting for us to do something,” said Commissioner Francis Suarez.

But there’s still a long way to go if Tri-Rail is going to play a greater role in Miami’s woeful mass transit system. And Miami officials and Tri-Rail executives now have 75 days to make it happen.

The reason for the tight deadline: Tri-Rail’s parent company, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, wants to connect from the CSX line its trains currently take from Broward County into Hialeah to the FEC tracks that run into downtown and eventually will head into All Aboard Florida’s privately funded transit hub near Government Center. Tri-Rail wants to build two platforms at the station next to All Aboard’s high-speed rail cars, and then expand its system up the east coast through northeast Miami-Dade County and back into Broward.

Florida East Coast Industries, which owns All Aboard, says Tri-Rail must have the funds by the end of June, or they will move on and build without including Tri-Rail’s infrastructure in its plans. Should that happen, Tri-Rail executives say the cost of buying land will likely kill any potential of ever connecting to downtown Miami.

Heading into Thursday’s hearing, Tri-Rail executives had secured about $30 million in soft commitments from the state, its own coffers and Miami-Dade County. They’d hoped to leave City Hall with another $11 million in hand from the city.

That’s not quite what happened. Instead, a proposal by Commissioner Marc Sarnoff to pony up the $11 million fizzled, and commissioners agreed to give at least $5.5 million in transportation taxes, with Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez having told Suarez Wednesday that he’d support adding another $5.5 million to the $8.3 million already likely to come from the county’s pot of transportation dollars.

That now leaves some $29 million to be provided within the next 75 days, the deadline commissioners gave City Manager Daniel Alfonso to return with a financing package. Commissioners also told Alfonso to seek money from neighboring municipalities and other governments that might benefit from an expanded Tri-Rail system.

Whatever happens, Alfonso and Tri-Rail will likely need to find more money somewhere in order to make a deal happen by June. Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon — chairman of an Overtown redevelopment agency that will be central to any Tri-Rail deal — made that clear Thursday when he balked at the nearly $30 million bill for the redevelopment agency.

Hardemon said the agency, which would provide money by giving back property taxes paid by All Aboard’s MiamiCentral complex, should be a bit player in the financial package. Right now, it would be asked to shoulder the largest load of any agency.

“We can do better,” he said, before begrudgingly voting in favor of furthering negotiations.

Another potential pitfall: Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado says he’ll veto any attempt to use Miami’s general fund dollars to support Tri-Rail. He told commissioners Thursday he was “OK” with what they passed, although commissioners can override a Regalado veto with a super-majority.

So, whether Tri-Rail will secure the money it needs to come to downtown Miami and expand its system north remains a question. But following the vote, Jack Stephens, executive director of South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, said he was pleased by the vote.

“I’m thrilled. It’s moving the ball forward,” he said. “All of them, through the mayor and everybody else, agree to the vision of bringing Tri-Rail into downtown. Just how is always the issue.”

In other action Thursday, commissioners:

  • Agreed to spend $210,000 to buy a bank-owned, Flagami-area property at 735 SW 63rd Ct. and turn the 10,000-square-foot lot into a small park.
  • Voted to adopt Miami-Dade County’s fee structure for towing rates.
  • Approved a new three-year contract with AFSCME Local 1907 that includes 3 percent raises retroactive to the beginning of the year, and 5 percent “step” bumps during the next two years for most members of the union. Workers in the labor group include general employees, such as code compliance officers and electricians.