Miami-Dade County

County needs to raise $102 million for rail line west

Miami-Dade County could launch rail service to the western suburbs for about $102 million, a relatively low price that relies on local government using an existing cargo line that runs along the Dolphin Expressway.

A new consultant’s analysis offers the updated price estimates for an initiative spearheaded by Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the Miami-Dade commissioner who leads the county’s transportation committee. He’s used that perch to advocate for the east-west plan, which would launch an 11-mile commuter line linking Miami International Airport with new stations as far away as Northwest 137th Avenue.

“I hate to use the term low-hanging fruit,” Bovo told a Metropolitan Planning Organization committee Tuesday. “But this really seems to be viable.”

Bovo’s plan has drawn praise from elected officials throughout the year, as more political attention turns to the region’s traffic woes and expanded tolling on the Dolphin and the Airport Expressway. But his plan, combined with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s push for a light-rail system connecting Miami with Miami Beach over Biscayne Bay, also raised concerns about diverting funds from modernizing the county’s bus service for larger swaths of the county.

“Let’s be a consistent voice for the people that we represent, because those people also pay their taxes and expect to get the full service,” said Barbara Jordan, a county commissioner whose district includes Miami Gardens and borders Broward County. “And I don’t want them to be behind the eight ball, and we get a BayLink over here and we get a system going east-west, and we still have north [Miami-Dade] out there with regular bus routes.”

Bovo said Tri-Rail may want to operate the system, which would start at Tri-Rail’s newest station at the Miami Intermodal Center next to MIA. The new cost figures from a consultant for the Metropolitan Planning Organization show the rail line would cost about $8 million a year to run, according to a presentation his office said was prepared by MPO consultant Jacobs out of Pasadena, Calif.

That operating cost roughly compares to the $9 million operations budget for downtown Miami’s four-mile Metromover system, while the $102 million construction cost is a tiny fraction of the $2.3 billion price tag for the long-delayed extension of Metrorail west of the Florida Turnpike.

Bovo’s plan only works if CSX, a for-profit rail company, makes its cargo tracks available to Miami-Dade. Bovo has been meeting with CSX executives, and said the Jacksonville-based company told him it’s eager to find another entity to take over maintenance costs for an under-used cargo route servicing Miami-Dade’s western quarries.

CSX cargo trains would share track with Miami-Dade’s passenger cars, with the hope that the freight runs could happen overnight when the passenger service would be idle. Miami-Dade would need to build the stations and some additional track to allow for passing, but could avoid the costly process of creating a rail line through existing property.

In an email, a CSX spokesperson declined to comment on Bovo’s description of what he said company executives told him. “CSX is in preliminary discussions with Miami-Dade officials regarding the potential use of CSX-owned track in Miami for commuter rail,” wrote Kristin Seay, of CSX’s communications office. “These discussions are in very early stages.”

Miami-Dade pursued an earlier version of Bovo’s plan more than a decade ago, but it fizzled after it became clear the CSX tracks wouldn’t be available, several officials said Tuesday.

After becoming transportation chairman in January, Bovo revived that plan and started new talks with CSX. While elected leaders and transit leaders are embracing the concept, CSX has yet to publicly weigh in with a commitment to make its rails available or say how much that might cost. The figures Bovo presented do not include any acquisition costs Miami-Dade may pay CSX if the company wants to sell its tracks.

“CSX is difficult to work with,” Javier Rodriguez, director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, told the MPO panel after Bovo spoke. “Hopefully, we’ve jumped that hurdle.”

Bovo showed the Jacobs presentation to an MPO panel Tuesday morning, and a spokeswoman for the local agency, which oversees federal transportation funds, said a full report on the proposed rail line would not be available until early next year.

A special half-percent sales tax helps subsidize the county’s transit services, which also rely on subsidies from property taxes and other general funds to cover a yearly $638 million budget. Transit taxes are helping pay for a new Tri-Rail station in downtown Miami. But they also are in demand to plug holes in a transit system where the Metromover cars are breaking down more often than planned due to lapses in preventive maintenance, according to budget documents released earlier this month.

Bovo wants to create a special taxing district that would run a mile outside of the proposed rail line. A portion of new taxes — those generated by higher property values and new construction — would fund the rail, meaning dollars that otherwise would head for police, road work and other core services would be reserved for the east-west line.

In his recent budget announcement, Gimenez said Miami-Dade will have an additional $2 billion in transit tax to spend over the next several decades. He’s touting the possibility of using the money to launch privately financed transit projects — often called “P3s” for their mix of private and public dollars — and is leading a delegation to Denver next month to explore that city’s success with light rail.

Through a spokesman, Gimenez stopped short of endorsing Bovo’s plan. “The mayor appreciates the plan’s goal and will continue to work with the commissioner to address countywide transit and mobility options,” communications chief Michael Hernández said in a statement. “Mayor Gimenez is very supportive of an east-west connectivity plan.”

Eric Zichella, a Miami lobbyist with a focus on P3 ventures, said Bovo’s taxing districts would be crucial to spur interest among private financiers if Miami-Dade declined to tap Tri-Rail or its transit agency to operate the new rail system. “I do think the special taxing district would be attractive,” Zichella said. “If there’s a funding source to pay for it, P3 developers will be lined up around the block.”