Miami-Dade may spend $76 million to build a train station near the Aventura Mall to serve the for-profit Virgin Trains USA rail service, using money for Metrorail and buses to create a new transit hub in one of the most congested areas along the coast.
Miami-Dade would use the county’s half-percent transportation tax to purchase land for the station, and then Virgin would build the station using public dollars, according to a draft memo by Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The Gimenez administration last week was pushing for the agreement to receive its first and final vote before the County Commission on Thursday, but a source familiar with the planning said Monday night that a special meeting next week is more likely.
Virgin, which used to be called Brightline, agreed to give Aventura-bound passengers a 35 percent discount off its normal fare for trips between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. A trip from Miami to Fort Lauderdale costs $15 today, so a ticket to Aventura would cost no more than $9.75 one-way under the formula in the agreement. Virgin would pay to operate the station and service, using its existing trains and staff.
Alice Bravo, Gimenez’s transportation director, said the deal would give the county a new rail line to an area not serviced by Metrorail, without the cost of operating a train system or building the tracks. The station at the 19700 block of West Dixie Highway would include a rail bridge to the existing bus station at the Aventura Mall.
“This is a high-density area,” Bravo said. “We have a number of bus routes that come into the Aventura Mall right now. “This serves as a regional hub already. ...This is a great opportunity.”
The draft 32-page contract between Miami-Dade and Virgin calls for the depot to be open by Oct. 31, 2020, creating a new train station within a year of the proposal being made. But the prices far exceed anything Miami-Dade sells now as mass transit. Virgin train seats could be sold at a significant premium over what Metrorail riders currently pay. At $9.95, a ticket to Aventura would be enough to buy four Metrorail tickets, with the current county-set fare of $2.25.
The Gimenez administration is trying to rush approval of the agreement, with Bravo saying purchase of the targeted land at 19825 NE 26th Ave. is “time sensitive.”
A Virgin entity obtained an option to purchase the four-acre site eight weeks ago, according to a proposed sales contract, and would use county dollars to buy the parcel and turn it over to Miami-Dade. Bravo said if Virgin doesn’t exercise its July 30 option to purchase the property, the land could go to another buyer.
Bravo is pointing to the potential for losing the land as the reason for the short timeline to win final approval of a $76 million transit deal that hasn’t yet been officially released to the public. The Miami Herald obtained some proposal documents Monday from a records request to the board.
While the expenditure of large amounts of transit dollars would typically spend weeks working through the legislative and oversight process, the Gimenez administration last week began a push to get the proposal approved quickly.
Javier Betancourt, director of the oversight board that oversees the half-percent sales tax that would fund the Virgin project, wrote members Sept. 25 saying Bravo needed an emergency meeting to approve the deal during a “narrow window of opportunity” for Miami-Dade to buy the land.
That board, the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, is calling an emergency meeting Wednesday night. The agenda is expected to be made public on Tuesday.
The County Commission, which has final authority over the money, meets Thursday for a regular session and the item would need to be added to the agenda as a last-minute item. Any member of the 13-seat board can object to a last-minute item, forcing consideration at a later meeting.
The source familiar with the Gimenez administration’s effort said that once the window closed late last week to make the proposal a regular item on the Thursday agenda, the plan shifted to a commission vote at a later date. That will likely be a special meeting next week, since the source said the agreement doesn’t allow for the two-week wait required until the next regular meeting of the commission on Oct. 15.
The proposed deal would let Miami-Dade’s elected leaders fairly quickly create a new rail option funded with public dollars, allowing Gimenez and commissioners to claim the station as a transit legacy before leaving office under term-limit rules in 2020.
The Herald also obtained a list of questions that Betancourt sent board members about the deal. Among the points raised by Betancourt is a provision in the proposed deal that requires Virgin to reserve 20 percent of a train’s seats for Aventura-bound passengers only until 48 hours before the train leaves. That means riders purchasing tickets the day of a trip may not see availability for rides to the county-funded Aventura station if Virgin manages to increase the popularity of its regular Miami-to-West Palm routes.
Bravo said Virgin is required to sell all Aventura ticket at 65 percent of the Fort Lauderdale fare, and that some discounts would be available for monthly transit-pass holders and other discounted riders. Betancourt asked how many of the Aventura seats would be assigned to the cheapest level of Virgin tickets, and how many would be assigned to the “Select” level that increases the price by almost 50 percent.
While the draft Gimenez memo sent to transportation-board members shows a total cost of $65 million, Bravo said the latest paperwork requests $76 million in public money. The city of Aventura would contribute $4 million toward the cost. Virgin would not pay anything toward development of the station, Bravo said. She noted the $76 million is a maximum amount, and that the actual expense could be lower.
By depending on Virgin to run the train at no cost to Miami-Dade, the county also will be depending on the company’s survival as what the Virgin website calls the only “privately owned, operated and maintained passenger rail system in the United States.”
Betancourt asked what the deal would mean if the former Brightline trains stopped running. “What happens if Brightline were to declare bankruptcy and terminate the service?” Betancourt asked.
Virgin has signaled plans to build a station in Aventura for months. In its most recent financial filing, it also said it was “progressing on the development” of stations at PortMiami and in Boca Raton.
In an email, a Virgin spokesman said the company cannot comment on negotiations but that Virgin Trains’ South Florida expansion “will meet demand for service and provide a public benefit.”
A Virgin station in Aventura would be built at a time when Miami-Dade is trying to complete an historic expansion of Tri-Rail service along the tracks owned by Virgin. That effort has already faced delays in opening the Tri-Rail link to a new $69 million depot at the Virgin station in downtown Miami, with the Tri-Rail portion paid by Miami, Miami-Dade and Florida. That station was seen as a prelude to Tri-Rail running along that privately owned tracks used by Virgin trains, provided the company could reach a deal to charge the government-run rail for use of its infrastructure.
Tri Rail charges $2.50 for a one-way trip within Miami-Dade.
On Sept. 23, Steven Abrams, director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which runs the tax-funded Tri-Rail system, wrote Gimenez urging him to require “accommodation” of Tri-Rail into any Aventura station. Abrams said such a provision would help preserve “commuter rail for everyday riders” as well as for those who “would avail themselves of Brightline’s intercity service ...”
This story was updated with updated information regarding the timeline for a County Commission vote on the proposed rail station.