Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Road work to wrap as Brightline comes
on board and airports upgrade
By Mary Hladky
If there’s one constant in South Florida, it’s the never-ending hassle to get from Point A to Point B.
Woefully inadequate public transit forces people to remain behind the wheels of their cars. All those cars clog roads and highways. An accident can bring Interstate 95 to a standstill for hours. Road construction intended to make things better brings with it detours and delays.
But 2017 is expected to usher in the completion of some major projects that will bring some relief. No cure-all, mind you. Enough, though, to ease the burden a bit — until the next major disruption comes along.
Mark your calendars for a big one. Construction of I-95 express lanes will extend into Palm Beach County in 2018, as existing HOV lanes are converted into two express lanes in each direction. While the project will move into the southern part of the county that year, most of the work — from just south of Glades Road to Linton Boulevard — is scheduled to launch in 2020.
Drivers using the lanes will pay a toll using SunPass, with the amount varying depending on how congested the express lanes are. Toll amounts for Palm Beach County have not yet been announced.
For those commuters who want nothing more than to never venture onto I-95 again, All Aboard Florida’s Brightline is promising to begin train service next summer between Miami and West Palm Beach, with a stop in Fort Lauderdale.
Brightline’s plans to run 32 trains each day will offer a transportation alternative to Palm Beach County residents who need to get to a meeting in Fort Lauderdale or Miami, or want to catch a Miami Heat game or performance at the Adrienne Arsht center.
The start of service will mark the completion of the first phase of Brightline’s vision to eventually run trains from Miami to Orlando — in all, a $3 billion project. The company also is considering expanding service north to Jacksonville.
Stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale hit construction milestones in September, and work on the MiamiCentral transportation hub — which also will include office, retail, entertainment and rentals — is well advanced.
As part of the project, Brightline is adding a second track to the Florida East Coast Railway line and improving 178 grade crossings between Miami and West Palm Beach. The work has caused a series of road closures and detours.
The second track and crossing work, as well as construction of a maintenance station for trains just north of downtown West Palm Beach, are expected to be completed later this year.
Brightline President Michael Reininger says South Florida residents will welcome Brightline as a way around I-95 gridlock and parking woes.
He cites the modern trains, the 30-minute transportation time from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale, another 30 minutes to Miami, and conveniently located stations.
“We understand we are challenging the monopoly of the car and therefore need to give riders the incentive to change their behavior to take an alternative form of transportation,” Reininger said in an email. “Overall, we believe that if we provide a better experience, something that people like and it gets them to their destinations faster and more relaxed, then we will attract many riders.”
Tri-Rail has offered commuter train service between Mangonia Park and Miami International Airport on the CSX rail line since 1989. But Brightline will operate on the FEC tracks, which run farther east through the three cities’ downtowns — an advantage for many commuters.
A Brightline spokeswoman said ticket and frequent rider pass prices will be announced in the spring.
“In terms of pricing, we are being very thoughtful and looking at it from the perspective of the frequent traveler who is already spending quite a lot on gas, tolls, parking and insurance,” as well as experiencing the unpleasantness of the drive, Reininger said.
Brightline’s success would be better assured if it is able to complete the proposed route to Orlando, and ferry tourists wanting to experience both amusement parks and South Florida’s beaches.
For now, that outcome is in doubt. Indian River and Martin counties filed a suit in federal court that challenges the U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision to allow the privately owned railroad to sell $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds to complete the project. In August, a judge allowed the challenge to proceed.
Brightline officials have said that they have other financing options, but have not offered specifics.
includes new entrance ramps to Florida Atlantic University.
For drivers who have no intention of ditching their cars, one major headache will end late next summer.
That’s when construction of the $69 million Spanish River interchange on I-95, begun in 2014, is scheduled for completion. As of the end of October, 81 percent of the work was done, said project public information officer Andi Pacini.
The massive project, which includes construction of 13 bridges, will provide direct access to Spanish River Boulevard from I-95 as well as Yamato Road.
It includes widening Spanish River west of FAU Boulevard, signalized intersection improvements, the addition of auxiliary lanes on Yamato Road, sound wall construction along Yamato and on the east side of I-95 north of Yamato.
The long-planned interchange originated as a way to alleviate congestion on Glades Road and to give drivers another way to get to Florida Atlantic University. It is also expected to help ease traffic on Palmetto Park Road, which has been used by drivers avoiding Glades, and to end the long lines of motorists backed up on I-95 trying to exit at Glades.
The construction has caused complications for drivers, with a series of lane and ramp closures on I-95, street closures and detours. The misery was compounded in October by the nearly weeklong closure of the Yamato railroad crossing to make improvements for Brightline.
The Spanish River interchange is the biggest Florida Department of Transportation project along I-95 in Palm Beach County, but not the only one. The agency also has been upgrading the Woolbright Road, Hypoluxo Road, 10th Avenue North and Donald Ross Road interchanges for a total cost of $28.1 million. All that work is expected to be finished next summer.
Tri-Rail aims to go beyond airport routes
The service remains popular with airport passengers.
Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Faced with competition from Brightline, chronically underfunded Tri-Rail is trying to up its game.
A key for the commuter rail line is the ability to transport passengers directly into downtown Miami. Now, passengers who want to get downtown have to transfer to Miami-Dade’s Metrorail line in Hialeah — an inconvenience that adds to the commute time.
After much drama earlier this year when Tri-Rail ran into an impasse with the Florida Legislature, it arranged to borrow money so it can move forward with plans for service to the MiamiCentral transportation hub.
“We are in the final stages of getting our funding in place,” spokeswoman Bonnie Arnold said in mid-October. “Our main goal is to get into the MiamiCentral station.”
Tri-Rail’s big advantage is that it services many more cities than will Brightline. In south Palm Beach County, for example, it has stations in Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach.
But since it operates on the CSX tracks, many passengers need to take its shuttle buses to get to downtown destinations. And for years, its reputation with riders was hurt by frequent train breakdowns and delays.
But if the downtown Miami station becomes reality, Tri-Rail hopes to expand further by using the FEC corridor. Plans for a Coastal Link service call for 28 stations. It would first offer service from Miami to Aventura, and eventually on up the coast.
“What we are hoping is to be able to run service as far north as Jupiter,” Arnold said.
Tri-Rail would not ditch its service on the CSX corridor. But at three points along the line — West Palm Beach, Pompano Beach and Miami — passengers could use a rail connector to transfer to Coastal Link.
Judging by the frequently crowded luggage racks on Tri-Rail, the train is a popular option for travelers going to and from airports. Parking at Tri-Rail stations is free.
Tri-Rail resumed direct service to Miami International Airport in 2015 upon completion of the Miami Intermodal Center. Take the train to the Miami airport station, then board the MIA Mover for the short ride to the terminals.
A round-trip ticket from the Boca Raton station to the Miami airport station on a weekday costs $9.70. Travel time to the airport is about 80 minutes. Go to www.tri-rail.com to get schedule and fare information.
To get to FLL, take the train to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport station and transfer to shuttle bus route FLA 1 to the airport. To get to Palm Beach International Airport, take the train to the West Palm Beach station and transfer to shuttle route WPB 1.
One possibility on the horizon is opening a new Tri-Rail station on the CSX corridor at Military Trail and Northwest 19th Street in Boca Raton. A new station has been on the radar for several years, and has strong support from Boca Raton officials.
Crocker Partners sees the station as an important component of its ambitious plans for MidTown Boca, a walkable mix of residences, retail and offices between Glades Road and Town Center Road just west of I-95. The developer has not yet submitted plans to the city.
Arnold confirmed that Tri-Rail officials have been in discussions with Crocker Partners about building the station, but said Tri-Rail is focused for now on getting a downtown Miami station.
Boca, Palm Beach airports upgrading
Boca Raton Airport. The expected completion of a $4.3 million Customs and Border Protection facility
next summer is likely to attract more companies.
Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
Prefer to get above it all and fly? Boca Raton Airport and Palm Beach International Airport have changes in the works.
The Boca Raton Airport is expected to complete construction of a $4.3 million Customs and Border Protection facility in June or July, said executive director Clara Bennett.
Once it is open, pilots and their passengers on international flights will be able to clear customs at the airport, rather than first landing at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport or at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport or PBIA.
That will be a big convenience, and will help the airport attract more international flights.
of the runway to stop aircraft if they overrun the pavement.
The airport also is in the midst of a safety improvement project, adding a system on both ends of the runway that will stop aircraft if they overrun it.
The first half of the project, costing $5.5 million, was completed in July. The second half, for the end of the runway closer to Glades Road, is being designed and could be completed next summer at a cost of about another $5 million, Bennett said. The system is in use at about 65 other airports across the country, she said.
The airport had about 63,000 takeoffs and landings in the past 12 months.
PBIA is adding new flights and resuming seasonal ones.
As of Dec. 15, Sun Country, an airline new to PBIA, will launch direct flights between West Palm Beach and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport four days a week through April 23, the airport announced last month.
Delta Air Lines is adding a daily flight to Minneapolis effective Dec. 17. Frontier Airlines launched new service to Chicago effective Oct. 31. Air Canada will increase service to Montreal to once daily beginning Dec. 16.
These and other airlines are resuming seasonal service in November and December.
The airport’s Travel Plaza is expected to open at the end of this year, at the southwest corner of Belvedere and Florida Mango roads. It’s built to meet airport customer demand. It will include a 7-Eleven, Dunkin’ Donuts, car wash, cell phone lot and free Wi-Fi.