Miami-Dade County

A costly piece for Miami-Dade’s east-west route: CSX tracks

Commuters scramble out of the Tri-Rail trains on NW 79th street in Miami on Tuesday April 21, 2015. Tri-Rail is a potential operator of an east-west commuter line that would run on tracks owned by the CSX cargo-rail company.
Commuters scramble out of the Tri-Rail trains on NW 79th street in Miami on Tuesday April 21, 2015. Tri-Rail is a potential operator of an east-west commuter line that would run on tracks owned by the CSX cargo-rail company. EL NUEVO HERALD

Miami-Dade County’s low-budget solution to an east-west rail line may get hung up on a big-ticket necessity: spending hundreds of millions to purchase tracks now used for cargo.

In a letter to the county’s transportation board, the CSX cargo company outlined a framework for considering a plan to run passenger rail on its tracks between Miami International Airport and the county’s western suburbs. CSX’s primary condition could prove costly: It wants Florida to purchase about 35 miles of track the company operates in western and southern Miami-Dade.

CSX negotiated a similar deal for Orlando’s commuter line, SunRail. The 61-mile line — Central Florida’s version of Tri-Rail —launched in 2014 after Florida acquired the CSX tracks for about $430 million. That price would translate to about $245 million for a 35-mile track.

That cost alone is more than double the $102 million price tag touted in a presentation last week by Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo.

Bovo, chairman of the commission’s Transportation Committee, is the leading champion of the plan to finally deliver the east-west commuter rail promised to voters in 2002 when they approved a half-percent transit sales tax. While the initial promise contemplated an extension of the county’s Metrorail service on a new line, Bovo’s plan is considered a bargain because it would utilize existing cargo tracks.

CSX’s demand to be compensated for its tracks was no surprise to Bovo and his staff, who have met privately with railroad executives throughout the year in developing the east-west proposal. But the July 23 letter from CSX executive Marco Turra to the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization is the first time CSX has publicly laid out how it might consider participating in Bovo’s plan.

The letter did not say the company wanted to sell. But it said CSX would only consider Bovo’s plan for an 11-mile passenger rail if Florida’s Department of Transportation agreed to purchase not just the east-west route but a much larger stretch of track running south to Homestead.

“FDOT will need to acquire the entire Homestead Subdivision at a fair market value,” Turra wrote, using the umbrella term for both tracks.

Local officials involved in the talks emphasize discussions are in such an early stage that it’s too soon to try to pencil out what CSX’s demands might cost or whether the financials of the Orlando deal would apply in Miami-Dade.

But Turra’s letter revealed a potential deal breaker if the state isn’t interested in accommodating CSX’s request that it own the rail line that Miami-Dade wants to use. Miami-Dade leaders pursued a similar deal with CSX about a decade ago, but it fizzled once securing the tracks appeared to be out of reach.

Bovo said Monday he planned to meet with Florida’s transportation secretary, Jim Buxold, in the coming weeks to press for the project’s support.

“I am very interested in knowing if the state is interested at all in rekindling this conversation,” he said. “And I need to let the know state know how helpful that could be for Miami-Dade County.”

A spokeswoman for Florida’s Transportation Department said Monday the agency was not yet involved in any talks on the project. A CSX spokeswoman said the company had nothing to say beyond what is in its letter.

Key to the project will be how much CSX values the tracks in question. The east-west line runs parallel to the Dolphin Expressway, and mostly services rock quarries in western Miami-Dade. Should a government entity purchase the tracks, CSX could negotiate for its own permanent usage without having to invest in maintenance and improvements.

In Turra’s letter to the MPO, CSX lays out a string of requirements that revolve around state ownership of the line. It wants the state agency to be in charge of maintenance and operations, and would insist on exclusive and perpetual freight rights on the track. While the concept of county ownership isn’t off the table, the state provides far deeper pockets and security for CSX as it considers future operations.

Tri-Rail, the county- and state-funded commuter line that runs between Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, also runs on former CSX track now owned by the state. Tri-Rail may end up the operator of the new east-west line under Bovo’s plan, so the concept wouldn’t be new. In his letter, CSX’s Turra noted the past deals in laying out the company’s requirements.

“These principles have been successfully used in the implementation of both SunRail and TriRail,” he wrote.

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