By Mary Hladky
The possibility of a second Tri-Rail station in Boca Raton has all but evaporated.
Steven Abrams, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transit Authority, which operates Tri-Rail, told the Federation of Boca Raton Homeowner Associations on March 5 that the idea is on permanent hold.
Tri-Rail began considering a second Boca Raton stop in 2007, and the idea got traction when a coalition of landowners near the Town Center mall proposed a “live, work, play” redevelopment that included as many as 2,500 apartments near the CSX railroad tracks that run roughly parallel to Interstate 95.
A 2016 Tri-Rail study found the station would attract enough riders to be economically viable. In July, Tri-Rail chose as its preferred location a site in the center of the proposed Midtown project. The former King’s Deli property sits along the tracks at the intersection of Military Trail and Northwest 19th Street.
But even as Tri-Rail was selecting a site, momentum stalled after the Boca Raton City Council last year did not enact land development regulations that would have allowed Midtown redevelopment to proceed.
The council’s decision also made it unlikely that landowner Crocker Partners, which led the Midtown coalition and owns the King’s Deli site, would donate the land for the station.
Crocker Partners has sued the city, seeking $136.7 million in damages, for not adopting the land development regulations.
Without residential development and land donation, “I don’t envision [the station] happening,” Abrams said after the meeting.
Coastal Link vision
But as Tri-Rail celebrates its 30th birthday this year, it is moving ahead on other fronts under Abrams, a former Palm Beach County commissioner and Boca Raton mayor who became the transit authority’s executive director in December.
The authority is negotiating with Boca Tri-Rail LLC, which is not affiliated with Tri-Rail, to build a transit-oriented development on 7.5 acres it owns adjacent to the Yamato Road station. The company’s proposal calls for an orthopedic surgery center, restaurant and other retail, but no residential.
The area already has the maximum amount of residential allowed by the city. Abrams said uncertainty about whether the City Council would be willing to raise the residential cap led the transit authority board to shy away from a project that includes housing. The City Council must approve the project once plans are finalized.
The transit authority has long wanted to create Coastal Link, with trains running on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks from Miami to Jupiter. The FEC tracks run roughly along Federal Highway through city centers where stations would be more conveniently located for many riders.
The agency has built a link from the CSX tracks to downtown Miami, and its Miami station is anticipated to open at the end of this year.
“That is the first step of an envisioned Tri-Rail Coastal Link,” Abrams said. “It is a strong vision for the future. It is something I think there is demand for.”
Coastal Link would share the tracks with privately owned Brightline, which now runs from Miami to West Palm Beach and is seeking financing to expand to Orlando. Brightline rebranded as Virgin Trains USA on April 4.
The FEC would charge Tri-Rail to use its tracks, but negotiations over price have not yet started.
“We would anticipate ridership would explode” if Coastal Link becomes reality, Abrams said.
Coastal Link would build gradually, he said. Initially, he sees running trains possibly to Wynwood and then to Aventura.
Tri-Rail would not abandon its service on the CSX tracks if Coastal Link comes into being.
The two rail lines “serve two different areas of South Florida,” Abrams said. “There will be ridership on both.”
Tri-Rail is funded by Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, the Florida Department of Transportation and rider fares, but has been chronically underfunded since its inception.
When Abrams became executive director, Tri-Rail had a $15 million deficit. It has since been trimmed to less than $10 million with “lots of belt-tightening,” including hiring and travel freezes, he said.
Ridership was up 2 percent in January compared to last year, with 16,000 to 16,500 passengers riding the trains each day. Tri-Rail has long been criticized for running late, but Abrams said on-time performance has improved greatly and is now at 95 percent.
Both Tri-Rail and Brightline share a problem: people who trespass on the tracks or use the trains to end their lives.
Tri-Rail wants to use drones that would fly ahead of its trains to spot anyone on the tracks, so the train has time to stop.
Legislation has been introduced in Tallahassee that would end the practice of treating a Tri-Rail train as a crime scene when it strikes a person. The crime scene designation means the train cannot move and passengers cannot enter or exit until the investigation is completed — a process that can take four hours.
Tri-Rail also hopes to replace its outdated ticket machines.
The launch of Brightline passenger service last year has not had an impact on Tri-Rail ridership, Abrams said. The two rail lines have different markets, he said, with Brightline catering to tourists and Tri-Rail to blue-collar and hospital and medical office workers.