Miami-Dade County

Tri-Rail chief says downtown Miami link is ‘going to happen’

TriRail train arriving at the Miami TriRail Airport Station.
TriRail train arriving at the Miami TriRail Airport Station. El Nuevo Herald

Despite lingering questions about funding, Tri-Rail trains are expected to begin operating between downtown Miami and Palm Beach County by 2017, the commuter rail service’s chief said Wednesday.

“It’s going to happen,” said Jack Stephens, executive director of Broward-based South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, SFRTA. “We’re looking at having it operational in the first or second quarter of 2017.”

The authority is still seeking a large chunk of the funding for the project from the Florida Department of Transportation. But Stephens’ statements, in interviews with el Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald and at a Beacon Council transportation conference in Miami on Wednesday, marked the first concrete indication that the Tri-Rail plan to bring its passenger trains to downtown Miami will be a reality. Previously, Stephens had spoken about the plan optimistically, but made it clear that the service had not secured total funding to implement it.

The service, which is expected to increase Tri-Rail ridership by 2,000 passengers, is significant because it will provide the first commuter rail link to downtown Miami from Palm Beach and Broward counties. A large number of employees who work in downtown Miami government and private offices live in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

During his Beacon Council presentation, and later in interviews, Stephens said most of the roughly $70 million that Tri-Rail needed to execute the plan had been committed by a variety of agencies and governments in Miami-Dade. Contributors include Miami-Dade County, the city of Miami, two Miami community redevelopment agencies and the Downtown Development Authority.

“We got all the local money,” said Stephens.

Stephens, however, acknowledged that Tri-Rail was still waiting for one last hard commitment for roughly $20 million from the FDOT, which had said it would contribute money once the local authorities approved their own commitments. Stephens said one issue holding up the state is an insurance complication because of the interaction of private and public rail passengers on about a four-mile stretch of line near 71st Street.

He said state lawmakers may need to address the issue through legislation.

“They have not released the money,” Stephens said. “They haven't said no, which is good. But they've said there are some additional requirements before they invest the money in this project.”

The transportation authority has sought the funding in order to begin building its downtown station platforms either in the fall or by early next year, with the expectation that its trains will start rolling into and out of downtown within two years. Stephens said he expects that the state will want to participate in the project once they’re comfortable, but said he will recommend to his board that the authority move forward with construction with or without money from the Florida Department of Transportation.

“I would hope construction would be able to be begun this fall, but no later than March or April next year,” Stephens said. “We’re really looking at having it done and operational, if everything goes the way we expect it, the first or second quarter of 2017.”

Stephens has said that once the Miami downtown-Palm Beach County service is operational, Tri-Rail will assign 50 weekday trains to run its two services.

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