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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 or Metrorail.

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 through.

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 $800 million.

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 network.

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 local agencies.

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 trip.

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, Winton said.

''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 of service.

Also, the new authority hopes to increase ridership by building a system of east-west feeder routes.

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.