Over the past year, Tri-Rail executives and local politicians fought to cobble together $45 million in public funds to connect commuter trains to downtown Miami, where frustration over traffic and sparse mass transit is at a tipping point. But now they’re worried those efforts may implode in Tallahassee.
With the legislative session ending Friday, the Florida Senate has yet to pass legislation that Tri-Rail representatives say is crucial to their plans to run public passenger trains along the Florida East Coast Railway and into a terminus for All Aboard Florida’s express, inter-city Brightline cars.
Representatives of the two rail services say they need legislation clarifying who is liable should a crash occur on rail lines shared by public and private passenger cars in order to safely operate on the same line. Otherwise, All Aboard and Tri-Rail worry they might be held liable for a crash in which they had no involvement.
A sweeping transportation bill including the railway liability legislation passed weeks ago in the House of Representatives. But with just one day left in the session, Tri-Rail representatives still need to tack the language onto a companion bill in the Senate and hope the bill passes. If it doesn’t, there probably won’t be a next year, since All Aboard’s MiamiCentral station is already under construction.
“With this [legislation] in jeopardy, it throws the entire project — as far as I’m concerned — in jeopardy,” said Jack Stephens, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, the public entity that oversees Tri-Rail. “We’re at the end of the legislative session, and I’m struggling to figure out a way to move forward. If this fails, in all honesty, I can’t figure out how that would work.”
On Thursday, Tri-Rail’s social-media team took to Facebook and Twitter to ask supporters to contact Senate President Andy Gardiner to support their legislation. Local politicians also called Gardiner, concerned that a project with millions in public support from Miami-Dade agencies could fall apart seemingly over a technicality.
“This is a project that’s extremely important to our community,” said Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, who helped secure $7 million for Tri-Rail last year from the city of Miami’s pot of transportation taxes. “Anything that could jeopardize the one project I feel that we as a community have essentially put forth the majority of the money to see happen is a huge concern.”
The outlook for Tri-Rail did seem to brighten a little on Thursday, as one major roadblock — a controversial ride-sharing amendment to the transportation bill — appeared to be dropped. Rep. David Santiago, the sponsor of transportation bill HB 7601 in the House, worried early Thursday that such an amendment would have been a “poison pill” given Gardiner’s ongoing dispute with the ride-sharing service. But Sen. Jeff Brandes, chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee, said Thursday afternoon that “unfortunately” the ride-sharing language was not included in the transportation bill.
“I think we’re in a better spot,” Santiago, R-Volusia, said in the evening. “I don’t want to tip my hat too much, but I want this project to come to fruition.”
If the legislation does pass, that doesn’t guarantee Tri-Rail space in downtown. The commuter rail’s parent company still needs to secure a $20 million commitment from the Florida Department of Transportation to help pay to connect Tri-Rail’s trains to the FEC railway and MiamCentral. The trains currently run from Palm Beach County to Hialeah along the western CSX tracks.
Ultimately, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority plans to run Tri-Rail trains on a parallel line along the FEC railway from downtown Miami to Palm Beach. But the issue is likely moot without success Friday in Tallahassee.
“I won’t give up,” Stephens said. “For the people of South Florida and Miami-Dade, it’s an opportunity that really needs to be acted on.”