Brightline close to county deal on commuter tracks. Next up: Fights over stations

Douglas Hanks
·4 min read

Miami-Dade’s transit arm is moving closer to a tax-funded deal to bring a new commuter rail line to the urban tracks that run Brightline trains, with plans for a competition on where to build stations between Miami and Aventura.

A memo from Mayor Carlos Gimenez this week lays out the framework of a train that offers boardings every 30 minutes on weekdays, service that’s not as frequent as Metrorail but which is close to the 20- to 30-minute waits for Tri-Rail commuter trains already running from Miami International Airport to West Palm Beach.

The pending agreement follows months of talks after a sour reaction from commissioners and Gimenez to a Brightline proposal for a five-station route that would cost the public $350 million to build and as much as $80 million a year to operate.

The Gimenez memo did not reveal updated cost figures, which would include operating expenses and a rental fee to access the tracks Brightline used for its for-profit railway before shutting it down in March when the coronavirus crisis began.

A county deal could dash Tri-Rail’s ambitions to expand its existing service to an eastern route running near the South Florida coast. While the county says it’s considering Tri-Rail as a potential operator for the proposed service, the Gimenez memo describes a “commuter rail service that would be operated by Brightline on behalf of Miami-Dade County.”

Even so, Tri-Rail remains officially in the running. The county’s Transportation Department requested a cost proposal from the rail service earlier this month, for a plan set to go before county commissioners on Oct. 20. “It makes sense for us to be the operator,” said Victor Garcia, spokesman for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, the government entity that runs Tri-Rail. “That’s what we are hoping for.”

Location, location, location

A fight is already brewing over where Miami-Dade would put stations. The Gimenez memo says the county would invite proposals from developers and others along tracks originally laid by Henry Flagler in the late 1800s. But the memo also lists three priority locations: North Miami (near Northeast 151st Street), El Portal (near Northwest 79th Street) and the Design District (near Northeast 39th Street).

The language sparked a protest from business owners and developers trying to bring a station to the Wynwood area, near Northeast 26th Street.

“We’re surprised and outraged by the county’s proposed recommendation,” said Albert Garcia, chairman of the Wynwood Business Improvement District, a city board that promotes the shopping and entertainment area. “The county has singled out a few key property owners that I think are going to raise a lot of eyebrows. It’s really confounding.”

The Gimenez memo does not name property owners, but two donors to the mayor’s congressional campaign would have holdings around the proposed stations.

Craig Robins is the developer behind the Design District and his wife, Jackie Soffer, is part of the Turnberry empire, which owns the Aventura Mall and the Sole Mia development off 151st Street. Soffer and Robins gave $46,000 combined to Gimenez’s run as the Republican candidate for Florida’s 26th Congressional District.

Even so, Gimenez has big donors pushing for the Wynwood location that didn’t make the cut for the memo.

The Related Group has a development in the Wynwood area, and CEO Jorge Perez and top executive Jeffrey Hoyos gave $60,000 to Gimenez. In a recent text message to Gimenez, Related Vice Chairman Adolfo Henriques pressed the mayor for a chance to push the Wynwood site.

“I know you’ve got a million things on your plate, but I wanted to share my thoughts on the selection of the rail station,” Henriques wrote in the text, which the Herald obtained after a request for public records. “Clearly we have a vested interest in the possibility of a station in Wynwood rather than (or in addition to) the design district simply because of the large number of people who reside there versus the number in the design district...”

As many as seven stops

Gimenez wrote back that Henriques needed to talk to Audrey Edmonson, the commission chairwoman who also represents the area. On Thursday, Gimenez said Edmonson wanted the Design District stop and worried about two locations close together, but that the county could also build one in the Wynwood area. “This does not preclude a fourth stop,” he said.

Internally, Miami-Dade is contemplating a commuter line with seven stations.

In a Sept. 4 email to Tri-Rail planning director Loraine Kelly-Cargill, Miami-Dade’s Jie Bian asked for a cost proposal to run a commuter line along a seven-station route on the private tracks that carry Brightline trains.

The stops listed were: Brightline’s existing depot in Miami, the Wynwood and Design District stops; stations at 79th Street, 125th Street, and 151st Street in North Miami Beach; and another Brightline station already being built in Aventura under an existing county deal that included a $76 million subsidy.

“Please let us know if you have any questions, or need any additional information from me in order to develop a price proposal,” Bian, chief of planning for county transit, wrote in the email. “Your timely response would be greatly appreciated!”