By Mary Hladky
Virgin Trains USA has pushed out the expected completion of its Boca Raton station to early 2022, about a year later than company officials anticipated when the City Council approved a station construction deal in December.
Among the reasons for the delay are the impact of COVID-19 and Virgin Trains’ request that the city file an application for a federal grant to offset some of the costs of building the station and a parking garage, Virgin Trains Chief of Staff Ali Soule said in an email.
Virgin Trains suspended its South Florida passenger service due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 25. The company has not set a reopening date but released a statement in May that said it did not anticipate resuming operations in the coming months.
Ridership plummeted as Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a stay-at-home order except for essential activities and people began working from home or hunkering down there.
The for-profit company said in the statement that it remained focused on building new stations in Boca Raton, Aventura and PortMiami, as well as building new tracks for service from West Palm Beach to Orlando.
While city officials have directed much of their effort over the past four months to the closing and gradual reopening of city facilities and services in response to the pandemic, they have moved ahead on the station and parking garage plans for city-owned land east of the Downtown Library.
City staff has completed several reviews of the station and garage site plan submitted by Virgin Trains, and the city’s Community Appearance Board conducted a preliminary review of the station and garage design on June 16, focusing only on building aesthetics.
“We believe we will be prepared to break ground at the beginning of next year,” Eric Claussen, Virgin Trains senior vice president for design and development, told the CAB.
Of those CAB members who commented, John Kronawitter and Krsto Stamatovski liked the project design, but Tiery Boykin said it was “not as exciting as I thought it would be.”
The project could be considered by the Planning and Zoning Board in August or September.
On June 9, the City Council approved without comment two Virgin Trains requests.
The company asked the city to apply for a $20 million grant from a U.S. Department of Transportation rail program that would help fund the Boca Raton station and garage.
If the grant is awarded, city officials and Virgin Trains said it would reduce the amount the city would spend to build the 455-space garage from $11.4 million to $9.9 million. Virgin Trains, which is paying for the station, had previously pegged the station cost at $25 million.
Virgin Trains was awarded a $2.3 million grant in 2018 for rail crossing safety improvements along its South Florida rail corridor. The grant requires 20% matching funds from cities along the corridor that are getting safety improvements.
Since then, the cost of the improvements has increased. The Boca Raton City Council agreed to increase its matching amount from $76,288 to $153,298.
In another Virgin Trains development, the company has floated the idea of building five train stations between Miami and Aventura for a commuter rail system.
If Miami-Dade County commissioners agree, Tri-Rail’s long-standing goal of building a Coastal Link commuter system on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks likely would be doomed.
Tri-Rail Executive Director Steven Abrams sent commissioners a letter blasting the idea. Tri-Rail, he said, could launch the commuter line at a much lower cost while also offering ticket prices far below those charged by Virgin Trains.
On June 2, the Miami-Dade County Commission tossed out a memorandum of understanding proposed by Virgin Trains after complaining about how much the rail company wanted to charge the county. But the commission agreed to give County Mayor Carlos Giménez 90 days to negotiate a better deal.
The proposal marks yet another change of direction for Virgin Trains, formerly known as Brightline. The company had long insisted that it would build only three South Florida stations, in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, before deciding it wanted more stations, in Aventura, PortMiami and Boca Raton.
Company officials also repeatedly said that they did not want to operate a commuter rail line until they made the overture to the Miami-Dade commission.
In its latest financial disclosure dated May 31, Virgin Trains said it does not expect the coronavirus will have an adverse financial impact on the company.
“The suspension of service is not expected to have a material net financial impact on our business and we have access to ample operating liquidity to withstand a protracted slowdown in the travel market,” the report said