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Sept. 30, 2003 - Miami Herald
Tri Rail Studies New Commuter Rail Line Serving Business Districts
By Scott Andron
Downtown rail service being considered
Some South Florida leaders are itching to introduce something new to the region's
commuter rail service: a train that takes people somewhere they want to go.
As it stands, Tri-Rail rides on tracks beside Interstate 95. The agency's trains
go through no downtowns, and provide only indirect service to the region's airports.
Getting where you want to go generally involves a second trip via bus, bike, taxi
But the agency is now studying the possibility of adding service on the Florida
East Coast Railway's tracks, which run through downtowns from Miami to West Palm
Beach, zipping past Las Olas Riverfront and cutting through rejuvenated downtown
Hollywood. Towns like Miami Shores and El Portal would have a passenger train passing
FEC officials treated about 75 local government and business leaders to a ride on
the corridor on Monday.
The FEC, the same railroad created by Henry Flagler a century ago, normally operates
only freight trains now. But it may be possible for FEC and Tri-Rail to work out
a deal whereby the two railroads could share the tracks.
''I don't think it's a matter of if it's going to happen,'' Fort Lauderdale Mayor
Jim Naugle said during Monday's train ride. ``It's a matter of when.''
FEC and Tri-Rail started talking about such an agreement about a year ago.
The next step is a two-year study to work out details of a passenger service on
the FEC tracks, said Michael Williams, director of planning and capital development
for the commuter line.
The study, which is about to begin, will address questions like how closely to space
the stops and how to structure the deal with FEC, Williams said.
When the state bought the tracks beside I-95 from CSX in the 1980s, the price was
$264 million for 81 miles of track, with CSX leasing back the right to run freight
trains on the corridor.
An FEC deal could be structured similarly, or FEC could retain ownership of the
tracks but allow Tri-Rail to use them in exchange for a fee.
Williams said he has heard that the FEC wants to sell the tracks to Tri-Rail for
But Heidi Eddins, FEC's general counsel, said the company has not yet appraised
the property to determine how much it is worth.
And FEC executives said Monday's trip was not primarily about the corridor deal.
They said the trip's main purpose was to give local leaders a better understanding
of the freight business and its importance to the local economy -- and the transportation
For example, Robert Anestis, chairman of FEC's parent company, said the railroad
keeps around 900,000 truckloads off the highways each year.
FEC executives said they hoped Monday's trip would build community goodwill, which
in turn could help the company get things it wants from the government -- like the
opportunity to get a share of the federal transportation money channeled through
But what leaders of the coastal cities are interested in was passenger service.
Tri-Rail started its negotiations with FEC last year after mayors and commissioners
from cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood demanded it.
Miami City Commissioner Johnny Winton was in that group, although he wasn't on Monday's
In a telephone interview, Winton said the FEC line would offer a serious alternative
to driving for the growing number of people who commute between counties.
Now, a Broward commuter who works in downtown Miami would have to drive to a Tri-Rail
station, take the train to a Metrorail station, take Metrorail to downtown, and
possibly take Metromover after that.
In contrast, a passenger service on the FEC line would link downtown Miami with,
for example, downtown Fort Lauderdale, which has thousands of new apartments and
condominiums either built or on the way.
In hindsight, the decision to put Tri-Rail on the CSX track was probably unwise,
''I think it was a huge mistake,'' he said. ``It doesn't seem logical to me. It
clearly hurts ridership by a ton.''
TriRail currently tallies about 10,000 boardings a day.
In addition to Naugle and Williams, attendees included U.S. Reps. Lincoln and Mario
Diaz-Balart, and officials from cities like Hollywood and West Palm Beach.
Tri-Rail, which is now a part of the new South Florida Regional Transportation Authority,
carries the equivalent of about 5,000 round-trips per day.
But Tri-Rail officials say that will increase substantially when a double-tracking
project is complete. The project will enable the agency to increase the frequency
Also, the new authority hopes to increase ridership by building a system of east-west
The authority's board last week approved a plan to build, within the next few years:
Dolphin Rail. A new commuter rail line on the existing tracks that run parallel
to the Dolphin Expressway.
Dade-Broward Connection. A new express bus service connecting Broward County Transit's
Fort Lauderdale hub with Metrorail's northern end in northwest Miami-Dade.
Miami-Gardens Express. A new express bus service from Aventura to Miami Lakes
via Miami Gardens Drive.
The authority directed its staff to go out and find money for the projects. At this
point, none of these projects, including the FEC line, has a definite source of
money. In the case of the FEC line, Williams said money is one of the things the
study will examine.