Miami Beach

Bay Link project connecting Beach to mainland takes major step forward

An image of the proposed Bay Link streetcar on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach.
An image of the proposed Bay Link streetcar on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. Miami Herald File

The long-delayed rail connection between Miami and Miami Beach won a key approval Thursday when a board of local officials agreed to pursue the massive project in two parallel plans.

It represents a significant step toward making the oft-discussed but still-unrealized transit project a reality.

Miami Beach is powering forward with its own section of the transit project after it received an unsolicited proposal from French rail company Alstom last fall. The city is preparing its own environmental analysis while using the Alstom bid to solicit proposals from other firms.

Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami aredoing an environmental analysis aligned with federal requirements, which would take longer and make that portion eligible for federal funds.

By stepping ahead, the Beach could be eligible for state funds but it might be more difficult to obtain federal dollars for the work. But through a newly identified process discussed Thursday, the Beach system can be designated an “interrelated” project that could be an avenue through which federal dollars help pay for the light rail.

The entire project is projected to cost $532 million, with the Beach’s portion expected to cost about $148 million.

On Thursday, a panel of elected officials, including Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine voted, to adjust its plan to account for the Beach’s desire to move quickly.

In its pursuit of federal money, the Miami/Miami-Dade portion will use projected ridership numbers and the amount of funds dedicated to the Beach project in its application to the Federal Transit Authority.

The Beach could be folded back into the larger project down the road, and officials say they prepared the environmental impact report so that it can be used to ask for federal funding later, if needed.

Still, county leaders have said they would like to have one operator for the whole system, which might not happen if the Beach moves ahead of Miami and the county.

“I would like to be compatible,” Gimenez said Thursday. “But it may be that there will have to be a connection point.”

In coming months, elected officials in Miami, Miami Beach and Miami-Dade will have to approve an agreement solidifying their approach to the planning for Bay Link.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech