Commuter rail from downtown Miami to Aventura is being promoted to the highest priority level of transportation aims in Miami-Dade County and being given a new and far higher development price tag of almost $600 million.
The Transportation Planning Organization, which quarterbacks all county transportation improvements, is to vote this week to upgrade the priority of the 14.5-mile rail system that is geared to serve seven stations including MiamiCentral downtown and the new Aventura station.
Barebones documents detailing the changes do not include a timeline to begin the service, which is to stop at planned new stations in Wynwood, the Design District, Little Haiti, North Miami and FIU/Biscayne Boulevard.
They do note that the new capital cost of the project is $588,663,000, though there is no cost breakdown. The Transportation Planning Organization in 2021 estimated the capital cost at $345 million.
The county’s website now lists the total capital cost of the Northeast Corridor route at $682 million, “exclusive of track and right-of-way access fees.”
According to backup of the documents being voted on this week, $196.7 million of the capital cost if approved is to be local, $103.5 million from the state and $288.4 million from the federal government.
Planning for the service is underway. A letter from county Transportation and Public Works Director and CEO Eulois Cleckley says the county has been working with the Transportation Planning Organization, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority and the Florida Department of Transportation on the required planning, which includes “working with local communities to ensure station locations are integrated with surrounding land use and development.”
The exact locations for the five intermediate stations on the route have not been announced, nor has exact locomotion data or who will ultimately operate the rail line.
The letter from Mr. Cleckley says the planning, design and engineering study for the route is underway and the county is now seeking funding from the Federal Transportation Administration “in order to secure fund of future phases.”
Whatever service is chosen will share the rails with privately owned Brightline. Capital costs include building the five new railway stations and modifying the tracks “for a more localized commuter rail service to supplement the existing Brightline service along the corridor,” documents for this week’s vote say.
Brightline has promoted high-speed rail in a run linking downtown Miami with Orlando.
A year ago, the county Department of Transportation and Public Works decided that an El Portal station near Northeast 79th Street would be too challenging to build on the corridor. A report said the Smart Program corridor would require buying more right-of-way to accommodate El Portal tracks, station sidings and platforms. Also, track curvature immediately north of Northeast 82nd Street would require two added station tracks extended north until there is a tangential track to construct new turnouts. This would require building bridges for the new tracks over the Little River.
The county has negotiated with Brightline regarding commuter rail for the corridor, but the administration told its transportation department it should not work on agreements with Brightline before the corridor was approved into the Project Development phase of the federal New Starts Program for funding.
In March 2021, the Transportation Planning Organization endorsed for-profit Brightline inter-city rail company’s trains as the preferred mode for a Miami-to-Aventura commuter rail corridor at an estimated $345 million to build the necessary rail infrastructure, stations, park-and-ride facilities, maintenance depots and trains. Once built, operations and maintenance were expected to cost $16 million a year.
Miami-Dade’s construction share is to come from the local half-percent sales tax known as the half-penny, which voters approved in 2002 to improve and expand transportation. Half-penny funds also covered the cost of the three-acre Aventura station.
“In addition, there is a proposed ‘Access Fee’ for commuter rail to operate on the [Florida East Coast Railway] line,” according to a 2021 memo from Eileen Bouclé, Transportation Planning Organization executive director.
The route is to run on tracks owned by Florida East Coast Railway, which until 2017 was part of Brightline parent company Florida East Coast Industries. Florida East Coast Industries, owned by Fortress Investment Group, sold Florida East Coast Railway to mining and rail conglomerate Grupo Mexico for $2.1 billion.
Brightline had proposed the route for the Northeast Corridor in early October 2019. The Aventura station is halfway between Brightline’s Miami and Fort Lauderdale stations.
In a December 2019 memo to investors, Brightline said it might brand the service differently and could create a subsidiary operator to run it.