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Aug 19th
Mystery of the Virgin Trains PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
August 2019

The company wants more stations -- so will it be an express service to Orlando or a commuter line to downtown Miami? Or both?

STrains_1cott Singer, the mayor of Boca Raton, understands why Virgin Trains USA made a formal proposal to build a train station in his city. Boca’s downtown area is growing. More than half the corporate headquarters in Palm Beach County are based in the city. It’s home to at least three colleges. And Boca Raton’s Tri-Rail station is the busiest in the entire state-funded commuter train system.

“I think Boca Raton has a lot of advantages other cities can’t offer,” Singer tells the BT, adding: “We punch above our weight.”

Boca Raton isn’t the only location between downtown Miami and West Palm Beach under consideration by Virgin Trains USA, formerly known as Brightline, for a new station. On June 28, Virgin, owned by Fortress Investment Group and Virgin Trains, declared in a financial filing that it would announce up to three new South Florida stations by the end of the year.

However, press reports indicate that Virgin Trains USA may be interested in constructing more than just three additional South Florida stations. And a May 9 letter from Patrick Goddard, president of Virgin Trains USA Florida, suggests that the first couple of stations Virgin Trains builds will be in Miami-Dade County.

“We are currently considering construction of additional stations on the corridor, with the first of those stations likely to be at PortMiami and Aventura,” Goddard wrote in his May 9 letter to Steven Abrams, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA), the agency that operates Tri-Rail, a commuter train service that runs along the CSX railroad tracks west of I-95 from Miami International Airport to Magnolia Park in northern Palm Beach County.

Yet even though Virgin Trains is looking at building more stations along railroad tracks that were first laid down by Florida East Coast Railway founder Henry Flagler more than a century ago, it isn’t interested in building a commuter rail system, Abrams clarifies to the BT.

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Instead, Virgin Trains will continue working with the SFRTA so that the agency can create its own Tri-Rail Coastal Link, a separate commuter line along the FEC tracks east of I-95. Tri-Rail Coastal Link envisions some 20 commuter stops between downtown Miami and Jupiter.

As part of that cooperation, Virgin Trains will add Positive Train Control infrastructure along tracks that will soon link Tri-Rail’s hub at the airport with Virgin’s new MiamiCentral depot, a three-million-square-foot complex in downtown Miami. (Positive Train Control prevents collisions and derailments due to excessive speed, and is required by the federal government to be installed on all rail tracks by December 2020.)

Once Tri-Rail extends service to MiamiCentral, SFRTA will be in a position to seek funding to build more Tri-Rail stations along the FEC tracks, including in Midtown Miami, Little Haiti, North Miami, North Miami Beach, and Ojus, immediately west of Aventura.

“We’re trying to work cooperatively to figure out how we can complement each other in their corridor,” Abrams tells the BT. “They [Virgin] don’t want to be a commuter rail.”

Because of numerous stops, traveling by commuter rail takes much longer than an express line like Virgin Trains, Abrams explains. Virgin tickets tend to be more expensive than Tri-Rail’s, too. Virgin Train tickets range from $10 to $35, with a monthly pass costing $350. Tri-Rail’s commuter tickets presently run from $2.50 to $11.55 for a day trip, and between $50 and $100 for a monthly pass.

“A commuter rate is for someone who takes the train day in and day out, and can’t afford the $20-a-trip ticket,” Abrams says. “That’s what we [Tri-Rail] bring to the table.”

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But Andrew Frey, a SFRTA board member and Miami real estate developer, thinks Virgin Trains’ executives could make a go at running a commuter line. “If they determine there’s enough ridership at the right price point to make a profit, then it’s their corridor. I have no problem with them providing that,” Frey says. “I surmise that, at every station they [Virgin] do, they wouldn’t want Tri-Rail there because we’d take passengers from them. I don’t think someone would go from Aventura to downtown Miami on [Virgin] when they could do the same thing on Tri-Rail at a lower price, unless there’s some express-service benefit.”

Virgin Trains did not reply to written questions regarding commuter service along the FEC tracks. In response to questions related to Virgin Trains’ plans for PortMiami and Aventura, and elsewhere along the FEC tracks, a spokesman replied via e-mail: “We continue [to] explore stations in the south segment to meet demand.”

Fortress Investment Group, a New York-based private equity firm, has aspired to create a high-speed railway between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and Orlando since May 2012. In January 2018, Brightline started ferrying people between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Four months later, Brightline was docking at MiamiCentral. By November 2018, Virgin Group bought a minority interest in the train service and announced that Brightline would be rebranded as Virgin Trains.

After that, immediate plans for Virgin Trains in Florida included completing a rail line to Orlando International Airport by 2022, followed by a rail connection to Cocoa Beach, as well as at least one station somewhere on the Treasure Coast north of Palm Beach County.

Then in April, Virgin Trains became even more ambitious, when Virgin Group founder Richard Branson announced that the train service had raised $2.7 billion in private bond funding, enabling the company to build additional stations at Disney World, Tampa, and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Trains_4Branson has also stated his desire to build a Virgin Trains station in PortMiami, where the Virgin Group’s Virgin Voyages Cruise Line is scheduled to open in a year, according to an April Sun-Sentinel article.

This past February, the Miami-Dade County Commission unanimously passed a resolution directing Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office to explore the feasibility of Virgin Trains building a platform at the county-owned PortMiami, which already has tracks used by the Florida East Coast Railway to transport freight. Commissioners asked for a report within 120 days, but the feasibility study has not yet been completed, says John Labriola, a commission media aide.

The county has also long planned to build a train station just west of Aventura. Officials have even earmarked a ten-block area in unincorporated Ojus between NE 193rd and NE 203rd streets, and West Dixie Highway and NE 26th Avenue for such a train station.

Most of that ten-block area, which runs parallel to Aventura Mall, has already been developed, including the 400-unit Midtown Aventura apartment complex. But there are two vacant tracts -- 2.3 acres and 3 acres in size -- both owned by the Eliahu Ben-Shmuel Trust and the Daniel Mims Ben-Shmuel Trust. The trusts purchased the parcels in a $3.4 million deal that closed in December 2012.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose district includes Aventura and Ojus, says there’s been talk for years about building a train station west of Aventura. Taking part in those discussions were the City of Aventura, Miami-Dade County, SFRTA, the Florida Department of Transportation, Aventura Mall owner Turnberry Associates, and also Brightline. Turnberry Associates was particularly interested in somehow connecting a train station to Aventura Mall.

“This was always low-hanging fruit,” Heyman says, adding that Turnberry also wanted a station at NE 151st Street for the Solé Mia community it was building with the LeFrak family in North Miami.

Trains_5Aventura Mayor Enid Weisman says a train station would certainly be welcome in her city, which has some of the most congested streets in South Florida. But for a train station to work, Weisman says, there needs to be a pedestrian bridge over Biscayne Boulevard’s six lanes of traffic between Ojus and Aventura.

“How would people get across, other than Ives Diary Road or Miami Gardens Drive, unless we built an overpass?” she asks.

Turnberry Associates declined to comment for this story.

In the case of Boca Raton, Virgin Trains president Patrick Goddard is asking that the city pay for a pedestrian bridge as a prerequisite for a station near the municipal library.

A bridge over Dixie Highway is just one of six requests that Goddard lists in his July 19 letter to Mayor Singer. He also asked that the city convey parts of the 6.9 acres it owns near the library to Virgin Trains; pay for the construction of a parking garage; fund a shuttle service from the station to “various locations within Boca Raton to improve connectivity,” expedite building permits, and work with Virgin Trains to “properly rezone the site to accommodate VTUSA’s various uses.”

Virgin Trains’ vice president of development, Brian Kronberg, told the Boca Raton City Council that his company wants to build retail and apartments along with a train station, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Trains_6In exchange, Goddard writes, Virgin Trains will fund the construction of a train station and rail infrastructure improvements, manage the parking garage, replace the community garden and the library’s parking spaces, provide train service seven days a week, and “study the possibility of providing the city with community meeting space.”

Singer, who approached Virgin Trains to consider building a station in Boca, describes Goddard’s requests as “the first steps of a conversation that will take months to work out.”

The mayor notes that the city already provides shuttle service for the Tri-Rail station. As for the “contribution of the land” as described in Goddard’s letter, Singer says the city won’t give publicly owned property away for free. “The city would have to get value for the land,” he explains, “and that value can come in different ways.”

Joann Hussey, communications manager for Hollywood’s marketing and economic development department, says her city’s officials also touched base with Virgin Trains executives in June during a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the enactment of a train horn quiet zone in Broward County. A meeting between Hollywood officials and Virgin Trains followed a few weeks later. During that meeting, Hollywood presented Virgin Trains representatives with a 246-page “transit-oriented development” report drafted last year with the help of SFRTA and the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. At the time, the report recommended a 2.9-acre, city-owned site along the Dixie Highway/21st Avenue corridor for a Tri-Rail station. But the proposal can work just as well for a Virgin Trains station, Hussey says.

“It [the report] talks about the positivity of returning passenger trains to the FEC tracks,” Hussey notes, “and some of the benefits that would come with it if passenger rail did return to downtown Hollywood,” points that were reiterated during the city’s talk with Virgin Trains representatives.

Hollywood hasn’t received a formal proposal from Virgin Trains yet.

“Definitely staff will be following up to continue the conversation,” Hussey says. “That’s where we’re at.”

 

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