By Mary Hladky

People who use Brightline to get around South Florida were shocked to learn that the rail line was eliminating a monthly trip pass with greatly reduced fares and is de-prioritizing riders who use the train as a commuter service in favor of those making long-haul trips to and from Orlando.

Riders most upset about the changes have contacted Boca Raton City Council members in hopes they can use their influence to persuade Brightline to reverse course.

“This new action by Brightline is a declaration of war against commuters and puts into question the very existence of a Boca Raton station …,” Boca Raton resident Christian Vandendriessche wrote in an email to council members on May 7.

He asked council members to talk to other government leaders and Brightline officials to find a “satisfactory and reasonable” solution.

“This sentiment is widely shared by every single person I have spoken to about this situation and the disruptive impact it will have for all of us next month.”

Resident Lowell Plotkin told city officials in a May 5 note that he moved to Boca Raton right after the station opened in December 2022, a decision that was possible because he could commute four days a week to Miami.

“For all of us who relocated, changed jobs and made other life decisions under the assumption that we would have an affordable option to make the daily journey … this feels like a bait-and-switch,” he wrote.

“I understand that Brightline is a private company and can do whatever its owners … want, but their actions have infuriated their daily commuters,” he said.

Mayor Scott Singer, a Brightline booster who lobbied for a station and has repeatedly described it as a “game-changer” for the city, told The Coastal Star in an email that he has contacted Brightline officials.

“I have repeatedly expressed my concerns to Brightline and shared those of other residents,” he wrote. “I’ve encouraged residents to keep contacting them directly at hello@gobrightline.com. I will continue to work for more service in Boca Raton and continue to talk to their top executive team.”

Brightline was eliminating three types of train passes as of June 1, including one aimed at commuters that offered 40 trips per month for $399, or $10 for a one-way trip and $20 for a round-trip.

Starting June 1, passengers can get a new 10-ride pass to and from any station from West Palm Beach to Miami for $350 for the regular Smart fare or $550 for the Premium fare.

So the cost of a one-way regular trip goes up to $35 or to $55 for premium. That doesn’t include the cost to park in Brightline’s garages.

Discontinuing monthly and other passes “will make it much more difficult for your average resident who is commuting,” said Council member Andy Thomson. “It is frankly pretty disappointing to me. That was never the intent when Brightline said they wanted to be in Boca and we wanted them.”

It’s unclear how widespread the outrage is. Two council members told The Coastal Star they had received about five to 10 complaints each as of mid-May.

Several residents who are not commuters but use Brightline to get to occasional functions or meetings in other cites said they hadn’t heard much about it from the people they speak with.

“It is either death on I-95 or Brightline,” said Katie Barr MacDougall, president of the Riviera Civic Association, which advocates for Beachside neighborhoods. Given that, “Brightline basically is a bargain.”

The city potentially has more on the line with the Brightline decisions. Ever since the Boca Raton station was built, council members have talked about creating a Transit Oriented Development zone to encourage development near the station.

As of now, the City Council isn’t dissuaded from going ahead with a TOD just because fewer commuters might be coming to Boca Raton, but that might have the potential to cool developer interest.

“This does somewhat take the steam out of it,” Thomson said. “The degree to which it does is unclear to me.”

Real estate consultant Glenn Gromann doesn’t think Brightline’s actions will impact the city.

“The downtown is booming in Boca,” he said. “The downtown is not going to stop booming. There are all sorts of high-end projects planned. …”

A person buying an expensive condo “is not worried about a commuter line to Miami,” he said.

The city leased 1.8 acres of city-owned land east of the Downtown Library to Brightline for $1 per year for 29 years, but with renewals to total 89 years. It also agreed to bear the cost of a 455-space parking garage, although a $16.3 million federal grant reduced the amount Brightline and the city paid for the station and garage.

Brightline also agreed to pay up to $300,000 to move the Junior League of Boca Raton’s Community Garden, which was displaced by the station, to Meadows Park.

Brightline has insisted since its inception that it is not a commuter line. The goal was to offer service to and from South Florida and Orlando. That became reality in September when the Orlando station opened and provided much more profitable long-haul service.

And yet, when Brightline expanded service beyond Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to build stations in Boca Raton and Aventura and recently announced a Stuart station, it became a de facto commuter line for many riders.

But with the changes, commuters will find it not only more costly but also more difficult to use.
In its most recent revenue and ridership reports to bondholders, Brightline said that demand for service to and from Orlando is strong.

“The addition of long-distance service has fundamentally transformed our business, with average fares, ancillary revenue per passenger and ridership all increasing significantly,” the reports said.

Because of that, “in certain instances we restrict available capacity for short-distance trips,” the company said in March. The restrictions reduced the number of short trips from 179,576 in March 2023 to 124,379 this March.

The higher-cost fares to and from Orlando increased March ticket revenue to $15 million, up from $4.7 million the previous March. Total revenue per passenger in April was nearly $68, up from nearly $33 the previous April.

Even so, Brightline still is not profitable. It lost $192 million in the nine months that ended on Sept. 30.

To meet the additional rider demand, Brightline is getting 30 additional passenger cars that will come online later this year and in 2025, expanding seat capacity by more than 75%, the company said in its April report. The company did not say whether that will allow it to transport more commuters.

For those who find the limited seating capacity and higher fares too much, the alternative is Tri-Rail, a subsidized commuter service with substantially lower fares that runs on the CSX tracks west of city centers.

Tri-Rail spokesman Victor Garcia said that as of mid-May the rail service had not seen an increase in ridership due to looming higher Brightline fares. Yet ridership has completely recovered from the losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and averaged 15,000 weekday passengers in February.

Tri-Rail also reached a long-awaited milestone in January when it expanded service to the downtown MiamiCentral Station with a connector train in Hialeah.

Tri-Rail and Brightline also have been talking about adding a round-trip express Tri-Rail train that would run from West Palm Beach into downtown Miami without a connector train in the morning, and a return to West Palm Beach in the evening. Limited stops would be at Boca Raton, the Fort Lauderdale airport and Hialeah.

The ride time would be less than 90 minutes, using mostly Tri-Rail tracks and a short stretch on tracks used by Brightline. The Tri-Rail board was scheduled to vote on the new service on May 31.


Brightline by the numbers
Commuter fares:
40 short rides a month for $399* prior to June
10 short rides for $350* as of June 1
Per-passenger revenue: $68 in April 2024
$33 a year earlier
Short-distance trips: 124,379 in March 2024
179,576 a year earlier
Total ticket revenue: $15 million in March 2024
$4.7 million a year earlier
* Not including cost to park in station’s garage

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