Brightline commuter plan panned by mayor and Tri-Rail, but advances into county talks

Tri-Rail and Miami-Dade’s mayor said it would cost the public too much to accept Brightline’s proposal to collect about $60 million a year to operate a county commuter line between Miami and Aventura.

But county commissioners still endorsed asking the administration to negotiate a better deal with the for-profit rail company to create the line once planned as a coastal Tri-Rail route.

“Maybe this isn’t going to work at the end. They have to present a case to us,” said Commissioner Rebeca Sosa. “Go. Work. Sit down. Bring us a plan.”

By a lopsided vote, commissioners authorized the Gimenez administration to negotiate for a five-station line. Only Barbara Jordan and Xavier Suarez voted no.

The decision keeps alive Brightline’s strategy to secure a relatively quick agreement with the Gimenez administration for a project that would end Tri-Rail’s plans to use the private tracks to launch its own commuter rail along the urban corridor to Palm Beach. Brightline submitted a framework for negotiations that includes subsidies from Miami-Dade that even supporters called too expensive to consider.

“I am supportive of commuter rail,” said sponsor Sally Heyman, whose commission district includes a planned Brightline station in Aventura. “But not at all costs.”

In a letter to the commission, Tri-Rail director Steven Abrams predicted a “substantial” savings if Miami-Dade tapped the tax-funded rail line to launch commuter service instead of the for-profit Brightline. Abrams also said Brightline, which shut down its existing express trains during the coronavirus emergency, won’t focus on the working-class people who ride Tri-Rail.

The board that runs Tri-Rail “is also concerned that a private entity operating a commuter rail service will not offer ticket prices that the average person can afford,” Abrams wrote. He asked the commission to allow Tri-Rail to submit a competing proposal to Miami-Dade for the tracks.

The commission resolution gives Gimenez 90 days to try to reach a Brightline agreement, the second major transit deal on his administration’s plate as it pursues a monorail development deal between Miami and Miami Beach with Genting and partners.

The county is also pursuing bids to build a new rapid-transit bus line in South Dade and is getting ready to invite bids for a rail line to Miami Gardens as part of a frenzy of transportation spending in a year when Gimenez and half the commission prepares to leave office.

Brightline, which plans to rebrand into Virgin Trains after its service resumes, sees the Miami-Dade project as a prime candidate for federal stimulus dollars tied to passenger rail lines like the company’s. While not approved by Congress, the Invest in America bill would add about $6 billion to a federal rail program that could slash the local dollars needed for the Brightline project.

“Our timing is very sensitive,” Brightline executive Jose Gonzalez told commissioners during the online meeting.

The company circulated letters of support from developers and business groups along the proposed line, which would include stops in Wynwood, El Portal and Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus.

“We’re really excited this opportunity has arisen for all of the potential stations,“ said David Polinsky, a Wynwood developer. “We think this would be a wonderful thing.”

Gimenez said he was ready to negotiate a deal with Brightline, but that the company’s proposed starting terms were far too costly.

The proposal has Miami-Dade paying $29 million a year just to use the tracks, plus between $30 million and $50 million for Brightline to run the privatized commuter line. Miami-Dade would keep the fare revenue, and also contribute about $350 million toward station construction if no other funding sources are secured. The county already has a deal to spend about $75 million building Brightline a station in Aventura as part of an express service running from Miami to Orlando.

Gimenez championed the Aventura plan, which the commission approved in October. On Tuesday, he was much cooler to the company’s offer for a multi-station commuter service and gave a grim outlook for a company that was hitting just a fraction of its ridership and revenue forecasts before the coronavirus crisis.

“Virgin is in trouble. Miami-Dade is not going to be bailing out a private company because they’re in trouble,” he said. Referring to the company’s overall strategy to make a for-profit rail line work, he added: “I wish them luck. I thought it was a very risky venture to begin with, the whole thing.”

Gonzalez said the company is optimistic about the future once the planned express line to Orlando opens, a project under construction for a planned 2022 opening. “I was surprised by the mayor’s comments,” he said. “I don’t know where the mayor is getting his information from. … We have no financial issues.”

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