The proposed tax-funded station for Virgin trains near the Aventura Mall would probably attract “fairly low” ridership at “extraordinarily high” fares compared to prices for mass transit, according to a report released Thursday by Miami-Dade’s oversight board for the county’s transportation tax.
The report also urged Miami-Dade to use the pending deal to exert pressure on the train company to open a long-delayed, tax-funded Tri-Rail depot at the existing Virgin downtown station and preserve the viability of extending the government-run commuter rail to the new Aventura facility.
The concerns did not stop the staff from recommending the $76 million expenditure, saying the added rail option between downtown Miami and the state’s largest mall would be welcome.
Board members of the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust followed that recommendation Thursday night and gave key backing to a proposal that could win final approval by county commissioners Friday afternoon in an accelerated vetting of a project that became public only nine days earlier.
“It’s not a perfect solution,” said board member Jonathan Martinez, a top administrator for Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez. “But it’s a start.”
With the unanimous vote, Friday’s emergency meeting by the County Commission would be the last stop in the proposal to pay Brightline, the company that operates Virgin-branded trains, $76 million to build the station, park-and-ride commuting lot, and a pedestrian bridge connecting the new depot to the mall.
While taxpayers are paying to build the depot, Brightline would cover operating costs for the new 16-mile route between the company’s existing downtown Miami station and what would be its second stop in Miami-Dade County.
“We’re providing a transportation option,” Alice Bravo, the county’s transportation director, told board members. “It allows us to proceed immediately.”
While there aren’t subsidies in the existing agreement, Bravo said the county planned to negotiate with Brightline a reciprocity deal to allow holders of county transit passes to use them on Virgin trains, too.
In a statement after the vote, Brightline said: “This is a significant step in expanding Virgin Trains and adding mobility to the densely populated area of Aventura. ... Our South Florida expansion will remove more cars off the road, alleviate congestion and provide additional economic benefits to the area.”
The staff report emphasized Brightline’s for-profit train system would not provide what the county considers “commuter” prices or service.
Tri-Rail charges $2.50 for one-way tickets within Miami-Dade. The proposed deal requires Brightline to charge Aventura passengers no more than 65 percent of its Fort Lauderdale fare, making it about $9.75 one-way. The report called that price “extraordinarily high,” and “out of reach for most commuters, catering to an upper income clientele.”
“The fare policy itself is a major concern,” said board director Javier Betancourt, main author of the analysis.
The staff report also predicted “fairly low ridership potential” for the Aventura route, given Brightline’s estimated 1 million passenger total for 2019. Tri-Rail carries about 4 million passengers a year between Miami and West Palm Beach.
Much of the staff report critical of the Brightline plan noted the prices and service contemplated fall short of what Tri-Rail could provide along the same corridor.
Officially, the possibility remains of Tri-Rail negotiating a deal to bring the cheaper, more frequent commuter service running alongside Brightline tracks to Aventura and beyond. But Brightline hasn’t agreed to an agreement to let Tri-Rail use the tracks, and the Aventura station is the first instance of the for-profit rail company opening a depot at a local stop where Tri-Rail had planned to go.
Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor overseeing transit, noted the $76 million one-time payment for a Brightline station is a significant cost saver because Miami-Dade had been planning to spend at least $20 million a year to bring rail service to the corridor. That refers to the “Coastal Link” strategy, where Miami-Dade was going to contribute money to cover rental costs for Tri-Rail to use tracks on Brightline land or provide its own county-run train service.
Moon also noted the deal gives Miami-Dade the chance to negotiate a future real estate deal with Brightline for the area around the station, raising the possibility of a significant windfall into the transit system.
“This is something that’s positive for the SMART Plan,” she said. “It’s something we can do.”
Alfred Holzman, a member of the transportation board, said he considers the Tri-Rail plan to be history.
“The Coastal Link service is a dead issue right now,” Holzman said. He said Virgin’s prices, and the lack of local stops between Miami and Aventura, shouldn’t be considered the kind of commuter service that’s been the aim for years along the congested corridor.
“Who is going to pay these prices?” he said.
The staff report also urged Miami-Dade to include a provision in the agreement linking opening of the Aventura station, scheduled for October 2020, with the long-delayed opening of Tri-Rail service into Brightline’s downtown Miami station. Tri-Rail and local governments paid $70 million for that addition to the Brightline Miami Central station, including about $22 million in property taxes.
And while Tri-Rail trains were supposed to be arriving there by 2017, Brightline says delays in complying with new federal requirements for safety technology have delayed starting the service.
Tri-Rail says it’s ready.
“We’re waiting, basically, on the invitation from the folks at Brightline, once they’ve completed what they need to do,” said Victor Garcia, outreach manager for the government board that runs Tri-Rail.
Eli Stiers, a board member, said Brightline could still provide commuter service with more stations and that Miami-Dade should seize the chance to build some momentum in an area where rail remains an elusive goal.
“This is a fantastic opportunity,” he said, “for the first domino to fall on that corridor.”