Keep Tri-Rail on track all the way to downtown Miami

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Tri-Rail commuter trains might not run to downtown Miami if a regional transportation authority does not give its final approval.
Tri-Rail commuter trains might not run to downtown Miami if a regional transportation authority does not give its final approval. MIAMI HERALD FILE

A transportation link crucial to easing South Florida’s gridlock is in danger of being derailed if the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority — the powerful, but little-known entity that runs Tri-Rail — fails to approve important agreements and give the project its final green light. Needless to say, too stall such an important project would be shortsighted.

In jeopardy is the highly anticipated public/private $48.5 million project to extend the southern route of Tri-Rail’s commuter trains from their final stop in Hialeah to a platform in downtown Miami. They would glide into All Aboard Florida’s Miami Central Station, where commuters could connect with trains and travel, car-free, between Jupiter and downtown Miami.

County officials told the Editorial Board that the project — brought to life two years ago by an impressive coalition of elected officials, among them Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, transportation honchos and community leaders responding to public outcry over gridlock — needs final approval from the SFRTA, which oversees Tri-Rail.

The authority is scheduled to vote on Friday on four components of the commuter rail project — and the $5.6 million that the authority itself would contribute. A Yes vote would give a green light for funding partners’ money to flow to the project to keep construction of the Tri-Rail platforms going.

A delay of the vote — or worse, a No vote — means trouble for a project that recently took a blow from the Florida Legislature and a governor who for some odd reason doesn’t like fast trains.

“We need to meet these funding commitments so construction can continue,” Miami-Dade’s Transportation and Public Works Director Alice Bravo told the Board on Thursday. “It’s impossible to move forward if the (transportation authority) doesn’t approve this project on Friday.”

The All Aboard Miami Central Station, being built across the street from the county’s Government Center, is scheduled to open in June 2017.

Money for the Tri-Rail platforms has come from varied sources: $13.9 million from Miami-Dade; $6.9 million from Miami; $17.6 million from the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency — which will guarantee Overtown residents free ridership; $3.7 million from the Omni CRA; $1.3 million from the Downtown Development Authority; and $250,000 from the Bayfront Park Trust.

Unfortunately, the project lost $20 million from the Department of Transportation when state lawmakers failed to pass legislation crucial to run passenger trains along the Florida East Coast Railway and into a terminal for All Aboard Florida’s express Brightline cars.

Lawmakers’ action was needed to clarify who is liable should a crash occur on rail lines shared by public and private passenger cars. All Aboard and Tri-Rail worried they might be held liable for a crash in which they had no involvement.

The legislation died — talk about irresponsible! — and so did the $20 million from FDOT. Bravo to Tri-Rail for coming to the rescue with needed funds.

Now, the SFRTA should give its blessing to Miami-Dade’s team effort to get cars off the road and facilitate the kind of smart commute that passengers in New York, New Jersey and other forward-looking regions have had for decades. None of the funding agreements is valid until the authority agrees.

Of all the master transportation plans on the drawing board, the Tri-Rail extension brings relief the quickest. The authority must ensure that this game-changing project stays on track.