By Mary Hladky
City officials need more detailed information from Virgin Trains USA before negotiations can begin on building a new station in Boca Raton.
City staff and Virgin Trains officials have held two meetings since the company notified the city in July that it wants a station in the city.
But while Virgin Trains has released a broad framework of what it will do and what it expects of the city, Boca Raton officials say they need more specifics.
Mayor Scott Singer said he expects Virgin Trains, formerly known as Brightline, to provide that information soon, and City Manager Leif Ahnell told City Council members at an Aug. 26 meeting that he anticipates Virgin Trains will make another presentation to them on Sept. 9.
“Brightline is still fleshing out their proposals,” Singer said after that meeting.
Once it does that, “we will have another discussion at the City Council on their framework to figure out how we go forward and what direction we give, if any, to staff to keep the conversation moving.”
Council members, who authorized the negotiations on July 22, and many residents are enthusiastic about a new Virgin Trains station in Boca Raton.
They say it would lure more corporations to set up headquarters in the city, raise property values, provide an alternative to clogged Interstate 95 and bring visitors to the city’s cultural venues, restaurants and attractions.
But the devil is in the details, and seemingly straightforward matters are proving complicated.
For example, Virgin Trains wants to build its station on city-owned land along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks just east of the Downtown Library at 400 NW Second Ave. That location would cost the library most of its parking lot.
Virgin Trains has said it would also build a parking garage on the land, and library patrons would be able to park on the first floor of the garage free-of-charge. The library would lose no parking spaces.
Friends of the Boca Raton Library does not oppose a train station, but does object to losing the parking lot.
In an Aug. 16 letter to City Council members, the organization’s board listed many concerns. It asked how the garage will be policed for safety, what will prevent train riders from using the parking spaces reserved for the library, whether the library would be easily accessible from the garage, and where library patrons will park during construction of the station and garage.
“We ask as you negotiate that we get to keep our parking lot,” Friends of the Boca Raton Library board president Cyndi Bloom told council members on Aug. 27.
“Some of our demographic are afraid of going into a parking garage at night,” she said of library users. “We are concerned about losing people not wanting to go there.”
Board members also don’t like the commercial and residential development Virgin Trains plans on some of the 4 acres of city-owned land that the rail service wants the city to donate.
“What would really rub salt into the wound is if any of that property would be used as residential,” Bloom said. Giving up the parking lot for residential development “would really hurt.”
Council members tried to assure Bloom that solutions can be found, and stressed that negotiations haven’t begun yet.
“We will encourage them to talk to you,” said Andrea O’Rourke. “We hear you loud and clear.”
Then there’s the matter of the Junior League of Boca Raton’s Community Garden, located east of the parking lot adjacent to the train tracks.
Virgin Trains has pledged to help it find a new home, and Singer has suggested several city-owned sites. Problem solved?
“I wish it was as simple as land,” said Junior League president Cristy Stewart-Harfmann. “We have extremely passionate gardeners. They are really, really upset about this.”
While it is possible to find a new location, it will take three to five years for the garden to grow back to what it is now, she said.
“We are going to be reaching out to the city and Brightline for funding,” Stewart-Harfmann said. “We do not have the funding necessary to move it.”
There are many more unresolved matters.
Deputy City Manager George Brown has said the project will require amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan, creation of new zoning regulations, a development agreement and the conveyance of city land to Virgin Trains.
Asked what more information he needed from Virgin Trains, Brown indicated on Aug. 26 that the list is long. Two matters he cited were the nature and extent of its development plans on the city land and whether the company wants the city to close any roads.
Virgin Trains is proposing to build and pay for the station while the city would pay for the parking garage. The city would also donate the 4 acres, build an elevated pedestrian bridge over Dixie Highway and provide shuttle service from the station to various locations in Boca Raton.
The company wants to place retail, apartments and possible co-working offices on part of the city land, development similar to what it has done near the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach stations.
It would like to conclude negotiations with the city by year’s end, with the station opening in late 2020.
“This Boca Raton station is a great opportunity for us,” Ben Porritt, Virgin Trains senior vice president for corporate affairs, told The Coastal Star on Aug. 5. “It is an exciting market.”
His company selected the city for a station because it is home to universities, about half of Palm Beach County’s corporate headquarters and has a large number of downtown residents who would find the train a great amenity.
Virgin Trains, he said, is meeting a need for South Florida residents who commute to other cities to work or want to get to sports and cultural venues. “There is a tremendous demand for more transportation options in south Florida,” he said.
By adding more stations, “we are trying to increase mobility. With that comes ridership,” he said.
Virgin Trains’ business model is to provide rail service between cities that are too far apart to make driving convenient but too near each other to fly to.
Virgin Trains’ primary passengers now are business people (including lawyers who need to get to meetings or courthouses in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami), tourists, and people “who are interested in unique experiences” that include special events it hosts on the trains.
The Virgin Group, headed by British billionaire Richard Branson, announced in November a partnership with Brightline that included placing the Virgin name on the trains.
The partnership offers the company a cross-marketing opportunity with the Virgin Voyages cruise line that it is launching out of PortMiami and a Miami Virgin Hotel that is in the works.
The company is collaborating with tourism offices, convention and visitors bureaus and cultural institutions, including Discover the Palm Beaches, the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. At the Broward Center, for example, riders have received reduced ticket prices to performances and concerts.
It also is teaming up with companies such as FPL and Apollo Bank.
Riders also can experience diversions not typical of a train trip, such as when Spider-Man and Captain America entertained passengers through a partnership with the Museum of Science and Discovery.
“There is a tremendous interest in what we are doing,” Porritt said. “There is a steady ramp up in ridership.”