By Mary Hladky
Tri-Rail has long hoped to offer commuter rail service on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks that run through downtowns along the coast.
Officials of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates Tri-Rail, know that stations along those tracks would be more convenient for many potential commuters eager to have an alternative to Interstate 95.
But as Tri-Rail has tried to make headway in offering service beyond its line on the CSX tracks farther west, Virgin Trains, formerly known as Brightline, moved in to offer sleek service between Miami and West Palm Beach.
Now Virgin Trains is adding three more stations along the FEC tracks.
In October, Miami-Dade County commissioners approved a new station at Port Miami and paying as much as $76 million to build the for-profit rail company a station in Aventura.
Virgin Trains is negotiating with Boca Raton officials to build a station east of the Downtown Library, and it appears a deal will be struck by year’s end. Officials in other cities are seeking additional stations.
That raises the question: Are Tri-Rail’s plans to create a Coastal Link commuter line on Virgin Trains’ tracks doomed?
Steven Abrams, SFRTA executive director, doesn’t think so.
“Two additional stations on the corridor do not constitute commuter rail that precludes Tri-Rail for a number of reasons,” he said. “There is still plenty of room for commuter rail service on that corridor.”
The reasons he cites include the high price of Virgin Trains tickets, the fact that Virgin Trains does not have, and probably never will have, enough stops to provide a true commuter rail service, and its trains now run at too infrequent intervals to be convenient for commuters.
Beyond that, he doesn’t think Virgin Trains wants to be a commuter rail service since its business plan is to carry passengers quickly to Orlando and Tampa. More stops would slow service for long-haul passengers.
“Every conversation I have had with them they have stated that they are not in business to run commuter rail,” Abrams said.
Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president of Virgin Trains’ parent company Florida East Coast Industries, told the Miami Herald in October that he expected Tri-Rail to pursue stations between Miami and Aventura.
“That is not our business model,” he said of more local stations requiring frequent train stops.
Aventura is attractive to Virgin Trains, he said, because it is home to the state’s largest mall and is in a densely populated area nearly midway between its Miami and Fort Lauderdale stations.
Similarly, a Boca Raton stop makes sense because the city is home to about half the corporate headquarters in Palm Beach County and the station would be nearly midway between the Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach stations, Virgin Trains officials have said.
Ticket prices could discourage ridership of those commuting to Miami, West Palm Beach and other cities for work.
A trip from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, for example, now costs $15 and a round-trip is $30, not including the cost of parking at Virgin Trains’ garages. A monthly pass costs $350.
That cost likely would be too high for many of the 4.2 million people who ride Tri-Rail each year. Abrams described it as “not a fare that is affordable for the everyday commuter.”
Tri-Rail has just announced its first fare increase in 10 years, effective Jan. 1. Even so, a monthly pass will cost $110, up from $100, with additional discounts available. A round-trip ticket between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach will be $12.50, up from $9.70.
Parking is free at Tri-Rail stations.
Miami-Dade’s oversight board for the county’s transportation tax determined that an Aventura station probably would attract “fairly low” ridership at “extraordinarily high” fares compared with the price of mass transit, including Tri-Rail and Metrorail, the Miami Herald reported in October.
The board’s report did not dissuade Miami-Dade commissioners, who said mass transit options are sorely needed.
Abrams has taken steps to assure that Coastal Link, if it gets off the ground, would be able to use Virgin Trains stations.
He sent letters in September to officials in Boca Raton and Miami-Dade asking for that requirement in their agreements with Virgin Trains. Virgin Trains officials have agreed to let Coastal Link in.
Such agreements are in place at Virgin Trains’ stations in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, Abrams said.
But many obstacles must be overcome if Coastal Link is to become reality.
For starters, Tri-Rail must offer service to downtown Miami before it can expand north. That should happen soon.
The Virgin Trains station in downtown Miami includes a platform for Tri-Rail. But Tri-Rail can’t travel there until Virgin Trains completes federally required safety upgrades.
Tri-Rail had expected to offer service from the CSX tracks to downtown Miami by the end of this year, but that has been delayed even though Tri-Rail has completed the safety upgrades.
Coastal Link would have to pay Virgin Trains to use its tracks. While there have been talks, no deal has been struck. And Virgin Trains has not said how much it would charge the perpetually underfunded Tri-Rail.
Abrams would like to think that Tri-Rail will be able to absorb the cost. “Their executives have assured me their goal is not to ask for an access fee that is prohibitive for us being on” Virgin Trains’ tracks, he said.
Even if that is the case, providing commuter rail service will be expensive.
“It would be a costly undertaking and up to all parties to devise a way to pay for it,” Abrams said.
Tri-Rail, which now receives federal and state funding, would need more of both. It’s possible that cities also would have to pitch in. Rider fares now represent only a small portion of its revenues.
While the deal for the Aventura station is largely completed, with the station to be paid for by using revenue from a half-percent sales tax for transportation, Miami-Dade commissioners still plan to negotiate a potential subsidy to lower Virgin Trains fares to Aventura.
Boca Raton City Council members expect to meet again with Virgin Trains officials this month.
Virgin Trains has given the city a 54-page proposed draft agreement, which has launched negotiations between city staff and the rail company.
Council member Monica Mayotte said at an Oct. 7 workshop meeting that she had received emails from residents asking about the financial viability of Virgin Trains, and asked city staff to conduct a financial analysis “so we can get an idea of what the future looks like for them.”
The city has hired a consultant to do that review.
Unlike in Aventura, Virgin Trains would pay for the Boca Raton station. The city would pay for a parking garage.
The rail service would lease the train station and parking garage land from the city for a nominal amount. It also wants an option to buy the rest of the 4-acre city-owned site, but it has placed on hold for now development of that property so it can reach an agreement with the city quickly.