Miami-Dade County

Push to build Miami Tri-Rail station driven by desire as much as data

Tri-Rail heading north leaves the Tri-Rail-Metrorail transfer station in Hialeah.
Tri-Rail heading north leaves the Tri-Rail-Metrorail transfer station in Hialeah. EL Nuevo Herald staff

A desire to do something — anything — to improve Miami-Dade’s limited mass-transit system and wean South Florida off its automobile addiction is fueling a quest to bring commuter trains downtown.

Despite some dramatic proclamations of what that would mean for congested roadways, ridership projections show a minimal impact from connecting Tri-Rail trains from Hialeah to All Aboard Florida’s transit hub. Also not an immediate game changer: a proposed $800 million coastal rail system connecting downtown Miami to North Miami, Aventura and Fort Lauderdale along existing FEC railroad tracks.

Tri-Rail executives told the Miami Herald this week that they conservatively expect an additional 2,000 riders will take their trains to and from downtown if and when they open their newest stop at All Aboard’s MiamiCentral complex. That would instantly make the station Tri-Rail’s busiest. But 2,000 people is a drop in the bucket in a tri-county area of more than 5 million; in Miami-Dade alone, 13,000 drivers pay to ride in the I-95 express lanes every weekday morning.

And while Tri-Rail believes its ambitious plan to build a coastal link on the FEC tracks will double ridership by 2021, that would still only boost train traffic to about 30,000 passengers between Jupiter and Miami. That’s small compared to MetroRail, which is used by about 75,000 people every day.

“I understand that people want any solution,” said Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, whose administration is now tasked with finding the money to connect Tri-Rail to downtown. “But I don’t think this is it.”

Regalado, however, may be in the minority. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has championed a Tri-Rail terminus downtown as a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” the Miami City Commission is largely supportive, and the independent trust that controls the purse strings to the money raised by Miami-Dade’s half-cent transportation tax says creating a Tri-Rail connection downtown “will dramatically improve mass transit in our community.”

Their faith is, in some cases, unrelated to any ridership projections — which some Miami officials say have only been vaguely discussed with them, if at all — or on a belief that Tri-Rail is intentionally underestimating to avoid falling short of expectations. There is also the fact that, because Tri-Rail would be piggybacking on All Aboard’s development, the project on the table is far cheaper than it would be if the heavily subsidized Tri-Rail were buying land and building on its own.

“The only logical place for commuter rail to terminate/originate is downtown Miami at the Miami Central Station,” Charles Scurr, executive director of the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust, wrote in an email to The Herald. “To not seize this opportunity for a true Grand Central Station would be inexplicable.”

Currently, Tri-Rail runs trains along the CSX railroad tracks mostly west of I-95 down from Palm Beach, through Broward, and then southwest down to Hialeah and Miami International Airport. Riders who want to head downtown on a train have to pay to transfer to the MetroRail, and riding to downtown directly would ease that process, speed up travel time and reduce the price.

Tri-Rail has been eyeing downtown Miami for some time as a potential terminus, and All Aboard Florida’s construction of MiamiCentral, a massive mixed-use complex near Government Center where they plan to run intra-city trains to and from Orlando, opened an opportunity for Tri-Rail to land downtown on the cheap. For $69 million, the publicly subsidized commuter rail system can connect to the FEC tracks and construct its own infrastructure on a train platform 50 feet above the ground.

And, more important, South Florida Regional Transportation Authority executives and local politicians say that would open up a huge opportunity to run Tri-Rail trains north to new stations on the FEC tracks as part of its coastal link system. The agency is still planning the 80-mile system, and expects to spend the next two years nailing down station locations.

“If you live in the Aventura or North Miami Beach area, traffic is very brutal and your bus options to get to downtown Miami or Midtown are slow, and Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton are non existent. It opens up options that you just don’t have today,” said Joseph Quinty, SFRTA’s transportation planning manager. “Right now your choice is your car on U.S. 1 or your car on I-95.”

Quinty said Tri-Rail’s projections are based on sophisticated analysis, yet he also said the organization is using conservative figures after vastly overstating its ridership projections when the first trains began running in 1989. “We don’t want to oversell this,” said Jack Stephens, SFRTA’s executive director.

So, while on one hand they’re tempering expectations, they’re also noting that there are a number of factors that suggest commuters will be more willing to get from behind the wheel and onto trains: an ongoing construction boom is expected to create 30,000 new condo units in the greater downtown Miami area; Tri-Rail trains are attracting younger riders, and coastal community mass transit opportunities are limited to busing.

Scurr believes those factors will drive more people to Tri-Rail’s trains than their numbers suggest.

Meanwhile, Tri-Rail recently re-connected to Miami International Airport, giving the trains another direct, high-profile connection.

“It’s hard to predict what the riders will be because the [FEC] connection doesn’t exist yet,” said Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, who sits on the county’s regional transportation planning board and has been among the biggest cheerleaders for the project. “Tri-Rail has probably been less successful than what they want it to be, but I think their lack of success had to do with the lack of connectivity.”

Still, Tri-Rail’s internal projections matter. Miami’s administration has asked for ridership numbers in writing, and as of Thursday City Manager Daniel Alfonso said that hadn’t happened. Meanwhile, Alfonso and his senior staff members are haggling with Tri-Rail and All Aboard Florida to negotiate the full $69 million package both entities say is needed to fund a downtown Tri-Rail connection.

Currently, the gap between soft commitments and the money needed is around $10 million.

They have until June to come to terms and present the package to the city commission for a vote. Whatever is presented, Miami commissioners will have to decide if the investment is worth the return.

“You have to start with the realization that cars aren’t going to satisfy you, and you’ve probably hit that critical mass,” said Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. “We have to figure out, what is the alternative? I think it’s light rail.”

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