By Mary Hladky
Boca Raton soon will be home to a Virgin Trains station.
The City Council unanimously voted in favor of an agreement on Dec. 10 that allows construction of a one-story station and 455-space parking garage on city-owned land east of the Downtown Library that the for-profit rail company will lease for $1 per year.
“Tonight was a great win for Boca Raton,” Mayor Scott Singer said after the vote.
“I think it is phenomenal,” said Virgin Trains’ President Patrick Goddard. “Creating mobility is what we are all about.”
Virgin Trains wants to start construction in February or March with the station in operation by next December.
Residents jammed the City Council chambers and an overflow room to support the station or to urge council members not to act in haste and to demand more concessions from the express rail company. In all, 63 voiced their opinions over nearly four hours.
“It certainly is a game-changer for our city,” said Troy McLellan, CEO of the Boca Chamber. “The overwhelming support throughout the city is loud and clear.”
Jorge Pesquera, CEO of Discover the Palm Beaches, said having a train station in Boca Raton is like “winning the lottery.”
Many residents and key business groups and employers are thrilled by the prospect of a station, saying it will lure more companies to locate in the city, increase property values and draw visitors to the city’s cultural venues.
But residents of the Library Commons neighborhood located just north of the station site objected to a 4.5-story garage looming over their neighborhood and fear Virgin Trains eventually will damage the character of the area by developing adjacent city-owned and privately owned land.
Others voiced additional concerns, especially about the financial viability of Virgin Trains and the wisdom of the city leasing land to the passenger service for a nominal amount and kicking in $11.4 million for a parking garage.
“It is basically a giveaway to a private company,” said Manjunath Pendakur, a retired Florida Atlantic University professor.
Library Commons resident Charles Bennardini said Virgin Trains’ goal is to develop land near the station.
“They are interested in using your tax dollars to further their revenue interests,” he said.
In a concession to Library Commons residents, Virgin Trains agreed last month to push the garage 25 feet south, creating a 45-foot landscaped buffer between the neighborhood and the garage.
Virgin Trains initially wanted the city to donate to the company about 2.5 city-owned acres that it would develop, but has since backed off that request and placed development plans on ice for now.
Friends of the Boca Raton Library objected to the loss of some of the library’s surface parking and any multi-story development.
Virgin Trains will pay for the $25 million station and nearly $1.9 million for 64 garage spaces reserved for library patrons who will park for free. The city will foot the remaining $11.4 million cost to build the garage.
Virgin Trains will share 50 percent of garage revenues with the city.
The rail company also will pay up to $300,000 to relocate the Junior League of Boca Raton’s Community Garden, which will be displaced by the station and garage.
While Virgin Trains will lease 1.8 city-owned acres for the station and garage for $1 a year, the city considers it a land sale because of the length of the lease. The initial lease term is 29 years, but with renewals could total 89 years.
City code requires any sale or lease of city property be done at fair market value. There is an exception, however, for the sale or lease of property that would be of “significant economic benefit” to the city.
Virgin Trains has provided an economic impact study that says the station will contribute $15.5 million annually in economic benefits, including $10.9 million in money spent by visitors using the train to come to Boca Raton.
The rail company has long resisted adding stations along the Florida East Coast rail corridor, saying additional stops would slow train service to Orlando and Tampa. It currently has stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
But that stance changed this year, and the company has won approvals for stations at PortMiami and Aventura. Those and a Boca Raton station will boost ridership by 2 million passengers, the company has said.
Virgin Trains, the rebranded name of Brightline, has drawn recent scrutiny for the number of people who have died on its tracks.
While all railroads operating in South Florida have struck people, Brightline is responsible for the most deaths, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
None of the Virgin Trains deaths was caused by crew error or faulty equipment, according to federal reports. The majority have been suicides, while others involved people who tried to beat a train or ignored gates and warnings.
In early December, Goddard said the company would contribute $150,000 to support the 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast Helpline, a service for people with mental health issues.
That would be added to $500,000 in state funding that state Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, is seeking in a bill intended to reduce the number of suicides by train.
The Florida Department of Transportation also has announced it will spend $60 million to make safety improvements to more than 4,000 rail crossings over the next two years.