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How Miami-Dade’s push to launch commuter rail to Aventura keeps getting messier

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How Miami-Dade’s push to launch commuter rail to Aventura keeps getting messier

Brightline’s plan for a county-funded commuter line between Miami and Aventura faces a fight to stay on track.

A commission proposal for Miami-Dade to quickly endorse station locations along the planned route stalled Tuesday after days of protests from business groups in Little Haiti and Wynwood, areas that didn’t make the preferred station list.

“It’s a very big decision,” said Commissioner Eileen Higgins, after fellow commissioner Joe Martinez exercised his right to delay last-minute legislation, bumping the Brightline proposal to the Oct. 20 meeting. “This is something that requires intense analysis.”

The legislation that had been set for a vote Tuesday would pick the Design District, El Portal and North Miami as the preferred station choices between Brightline’s existing depot in downtown Miami and a new $76 million facility by the Aventura Mall that the county agreed to fund last fall.

“Prioritizing these three other locations to bypass Little Haiti not only leaves thousands of potential working-class riders unattended, but it will also give these locations an immediate and unfair advantage over Little Haiti,” Francisco Herretes, director of the Downtown Little Haiti Stakeholders group, wrote commissioners. The legislation “would set this neighborhood back years and harm the very people who most need the public transportation service.”

An express process on the train stations

The resolution proposed by Commissioner Sally Heyman was not subject to the standard committee process and was introduced to the agenda late enough that any commissioner could ask that a vote be delayed to the next meeting. Martinez did, causing the delay. The timing is tight because the 13-member commission only has one more scheduled meeting before the Nov. 3 election, when six commissioners are leaving office and a seventh is up for reelection.

At issue is a long-sought plan to use 15 miles of existing tracks running parallel to U.S. 1 to create a commuter rail line that would offer an eastern alternative to Tri-Rail. Like Tri-Rail, this system would require millions of tax dollars each year. But while a government-appointed board oversees Tri-Rail, this would be a county-run system. A memo released last month by Mayor Carlos Gimenez describes Brightline as the operator of the system, but Tri-Rail also is lobbying to use its trains to provide commuter service along the tracks.

The Heyman resolution wouldn’t commit Miami-Dade to building a commuter line on the tracks that Brightline uses. It would instruct the the mayor to consider station proposals for the line from private developers and cities.

The resolution would declare “priority locations” to be 39th Street, near the Design District; the El Portal area (likely at 79th Street, a location that’s been part of past station studies); and 151st Street, near Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus.

Developers and business owners in the Wynwood area want a station about half a mile south of the Design District area, which includes the mid-rise apartment and shopping district of Midtown Miami.

A June study commissioned by the county’s Transportation Planning Organization, a panel that includes the entire county commission as well as municipal office holders, predicted a Design District station would attract more riders a day (2,055) than a Wynwood station would (1,427).

Over the weekend, a Wynwood business group sent a letter disputing the numbers in the study, Citing its numbers from the same consulting firm that wrote the county report, Kimley-Horn and Associates, the group produced an analysis showing tweaks in calculating pedestrian access would make the Wynwood station closer to more jobs and more residents.

“Frankly, the way way TPO staff continues to relegate Wynwood to the sidelines is unacceptable,” Albert Garcia, chairman of the Wynwood Business Improvement District, wrote commissioners.

Brightline already has an express rail service between Miami and West Palm Beach, though trains stopped running during the COVID pandemic to save money. Brightline runs the trains, but a spin-off company owns the tracks and runs freight trains on them.

Owner of tracks says not so fast

That firm, Florida East Coast Railway, threw the process into turmoil last week when it wrote commissioners to warn it wasn’t ready to clear any new commuter line — including the direct route to Aventura and a new Brightline station already being built with $76 million in county money under the agreement commissioners approved last fall.

In a letter sent Thursday, FECR president Nathan Asplund said “we have repeatedly told Brightline that we do not have ample information to approve the station, and we have been relegated to the sidelines…”

Brightline President Patrick Goddard wrote commissioners the next day and said Asplund’s letter contained “substantial misinformation” and mistakenly left the impression Florida East Coast Railway could “veto” county commuter service. Brightline released a timeline of communications it said it’s had this year with the track owner about the county commuter-service talks, and Goddard knocked Florida East Coast for seeming to want to sabotage the talks as they near a proposed deal.

To “the extent that FECR is seeking to interject itself into the negotiations between Brightline and the County as to the terms of any deal, that is obviously inappropriate,” Goddard wrote.

In a letter released Monday, the track owner took a less combative tone but made clear it wasn’t ready to sign-off on Brightline’s plans and that a new commuter line promises higher costs than what Miami-Dade might expect.

“It is not our attempt… to disrupt your negotiations with Brightline, nor is it to discourage commuter rail on the Line,” Asplund wrote. With the county pursuing five or six new stations between Miami and Aventura with 170 trains trips per day by 2024, Asplund said, that kind of system can’t be handled by the current set of tracks. “Frankly, this increase in operations will require significant upgrades to the Line and potentially the installation of a 3rd [set of tracks], which may or may not be possible…”

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