Miami-Dade County

Tri-Rail expansion along Miami coast is halted for now over who would run the train

The government-run commuter line Tri-Rail may start a second line east of I-95, but studies needed for the venture are on hold as a for-profit rail company decides whether it would rather offer the service instead.
The government-run commuter line Tri-Rail may start a second line east of I-95, but studies needed for the venture are on hold as a for-profit rail company decides whether it would rather offer the service instead. EL Nuevo Herald

A state agency has halted a study needed for Tri-Rail to launch a northeast commuter line running between Miami and Aventura as local officials await a decision on who would run the trains.

The long-sought “Northeast” commuter route would run on tracks being installed for the Brightline railway that’s slated to launch service between West Palm Beach and Miami by the end of 2017. Miami-Dade had planned to subsidize Tri-Rail operating on the same tracks but serving more local stops, including Aventura and North Miami Beach.

That strategy ran into trouble recently when Brightline, a for-profit company, told Miami-Dade it might want to operate the commuter line itself, said Alice Bravo, the county’s transportation director.

She has been negotiating with Brightline and its corporate parent, Florida East Coast Industries, about how much the company would charge for Tri-Rail to use the passenger tracks installed to launch a passenger railway that’s eventually supposed to link Miami with Orlando.

Those talks have halted now that Brightline said it wants time to consider whether it would rather collect government funds for operating the commuter line to Aventura, and leave Tri-Rail out of the equation, Bravo said.

“It’s going to happen,” Bravo said of the Northeast rail line. “It’s just a matter of how.”

In a statement Wednesday, Brightline made no commitments beyond talking to Miami-Dade. “Brightline is 100 percent focused on launching express passenger rail service this year,” the company said. “We will reengage with the county to discuss this transit corridor once our system is fully operational.”

You cannot possibly mean what was stated. ... If we don’t get involved very, very aggressively to have a track-access fee, we don’t have a corridor we can sell to the voters as being in place.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez

While Florida East Coast Industries is a for-profit company, Miami-Dade taxpayers have already invested in the effort to bring Tri-Rail to the Brightline tracks. In 2015, Miami-Dade committed $14 million to build a $69 million Tri-Rail station in Brightline’s downtown Miami depot. Tri-Rail expects to launch new service from Hialeah to downtown as early as December — a route already offered through the county’s own Metrorail system.

County leaders justified the overlapping service as a boon to downtown, since it would link Miami with Tri-Rail’s existing commuter service running west of I-95 to West Palm Beach. But the funding also was seen as an investment toward a new Tri-Rail spur along Biscayne Boulevard in northeastern Miami-Dade by linking up with Brightline’s tracks.

The halted effort for the one bright spot in Miami-Dade’s current rail ambitions coincides with the Florida Department of Transportation pulling back a consultant who was studying the impacts of the county’s planned Northeast commuter line. The Northeast is one of six corridors being targeted by the county’s SMART transit plan, but the head of a transportation board announced this week that the effort for the Miami-to-Aventura route had stopped.

It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of how.

Miami-Dade transportation director Alice Bravo, on a Northeast commuter rail line

“The Northeast corridor has been placed on hold,” Aileen Bouclé, director of Miami-Dade’s Transportation Planning Organization, said at a committee meeting on Monday.

News of the delay brought disbelief from one county commissioner attending the meeting. With a for-profit company already operating the track, adding commuter trains to the Northeast appeared to be the easiest way to bring another rail option to Miami-Dade after years of broken promises.

“You cannot possibly mean what was stated,” Commissioner Xavier Suarez told Bouclé. “This track is being laid down now. If we don’t get involved very, very aggressively to have a track-access fee, we don’t have a corridor we can sell to the voters as being in place.”

The Northeast corridor is the one route slated for rail under Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s recent plan to launch rapid-bus service north and south of Miami as the commuting alternative that Miami-Dade can afford to build. His recommendation included an unspecified subsidy for a Northeast commuter line on the Brightline tracks, and last month Gimenez said he was open to funding trains run by Tri-Rail or Brightline itself.

The Northeast corridor has been placed on hold.

Aileen Bouclé, director of Miami-Dade’s Transportation Planning Organization

On Tuesday, Gimenez’s spokesman urged action. “Miami-Dade County invested $14 million into the development of the Northeast corridor because our residents are demanding relief,” Michael Hernández, communications director, said. “The study for this corridor needs to be completed as soon as possible. We need to move forward.”

In a statement, Florida’s Department of Transportation linked the delay to Miami-Dade’s stalled talks with Brightline — which used to go by the name All Aboard Florida — and the company’s desire to launch its own service before talking about adding a commuter option.

“The Department’s Tri-Rail Coastal Link Project is on hold waiting for an access agreement” for the Brightline tracks, said Barbara Kelleher, a state transportation spokeswoman. “Miami-Dade County is leading the negotiations … and our understanding is discussions have been postponed until All Aboard Florida begins running passenger rail service between Miami and West Palm Beach.”

While the SMART Plan — it stands for Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit Plan — is a Miami-Dade effort, Florida agreed to oversee three of the six studies needed for the corridors. The study process involves a string of public meetings, plus analysis of impacts from potential transit projects. The studies are required under the National Environmental Policy Act in order to qualify for state or federal funding.

Florida has employed consultants to gather data and perform other preliminary tasks related to the Northeast route, but recently halted the work before it moved into the kick-off public meetings that have been held in the other corridors, Bravo said.

While Tri-Rail was the original plan for the Northeast, Bravo said there could be advantages to giving Brightline more time to consider just running a commuter service itself.

“Brightline offering the commuter stops — that would be a great outcome,” she said.

The Miami Central Station of Brightline nears final construction in downtown Miami on August 7, 2017.

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