First Cargo, Then Commuters (Maybe) [Biscayne Times]

Published in the October, 2011 issue of the Biscayne Times newspaper:

South Florida has a dream. A dream that one day every tri-county resident will be able to ride a commuter train along the coast from downtown Miami up to West Palm Beach, hopping on and off in neighborhoods along the way. A dream that Amtrak will travel that same route, stopping in major cities from Miami to Jacksonville before continuing on to northern states. A dream that freight trains, loaded with containers from new, super-size ships, will rumble out of the Port of Miami for the first time in years.

One of those dreams will soon come true. The other two will need time and lots of money.

The key to a new rail reality lies with the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC). Roughly paralleling U.S. 1 (Biscayne Boulevard) from downtown Miami to Palm Beach County, the FEC passes through the centers of 28 South Florida cities before heading north along the coast to Jacksonville.

Built by oil and hotel magnate Henry Flagler in the late 19th Century, the FEC played a major role in Florida’s development, bringing goods and people to the once inaccessible southern end of the peninsula. But competition from automobiles, affordable air travel, and problems posed by a workers’ strike brought passenger service to an abrupt end in 1968. Ever since then, the railroad has carried nothing but freight

The southernmost five-mile stretch, from 71st Street to the Port of Miami, was rarely used after that, and fell into complete disuse after 2005, when Hurricane Wilma damaged the drawbridge that carried trains to the port.

Now, thanks to nearly $50 million in federal, state, and private funds, that ribbon of steel is making a comeback. Work has begun to repair the bridge, upgrade the rails, and construct an on-dock rail terminal to restore freight service to and from the port. The upgrades are being made in anticipation of the widening of the Panama Canal, which will allow super-sized ships from Asia to unload East Coast-bound containers in Miami. A $77 million state grant will help fund the dredging of the Port of Miami to accommodate those larger ships.

Questions remain as to how effective those improvements will be in attracting mega-ships to Miami. Yet of greater interest, perhaps, is the fact that the freight revival comes in advance of Florida Department of Transportation plans to place both tri-county commuter and inter-city Amtrak trains on the FEC track, too.

The Port of Miami design calls for rail cars stacked with off-loaded cargo containers to use the existing single track that runs across Biscayne Boulevard, past the Freedom Tower, then turns northward, roughly paralleling NE 2nd Avenue.

At NE 71st Street the line branches westward and continues on to the FEC’s Hialeah Railyard, northeast of Miami International Airport. That is where cargo bound for South Florida distribution would be loaded onto trucks for delivery.

But much of the cargo, if not most, would be heading farther north, passing through Jacksonville and on up the East Coast. That will mean a lot of trains using the same single track envisioned to carry passengers from Miami to West Palm Beach, and beyond. Can commuters and containers coexist?

In 2009 Sue Gibbons of Gannett Fleming, the consulting firm working on the passenger rail study for FDOT, explained at a public meeting that “within the 100-foot-wide FEC corridor, there’s room for up to five tracks, so a combination of local, express, and even inter-city Amtrak trains is possible.”

Current plans, however, call for just one additional track.

“We are analyzing, hopefully, just double-tracking,” says Amie Goddeau, a Mobility Development Manager at FDOT. “We have to do an awful lot of train simulation modeling with the FEC to make sure both freight and passenger service can be accommodated and determine what type of infrastructure is needed.”

Existing routes for the FEC & Tri-Rail/Amtrak rail lines. (S. Florida East Coast Corridor Study)

Although portions of the FEC corridor are already double-tracked, vast stretches currently contain just a single line for freight. FDOT’s plan would run two tracks from downtown Miami to West Palm Beach.

The goal of introducing a local commuter service on those tracks is estimated to cost about $3 billion. “So what we need to do now,” Goddeau explains, “is break it down into cost-effective, buildable segments. We’re looking at a few, but if you live in South Florida, the one that makes the most sense is the one between Miami and Fort Lauderdale.”

In other words, a new tri-county commuter line will be pieced together slowly, as funding emerges.

As for Amtrak, which currently travels to Miami along the CSX Railway tracks (several miles west of South Florida’s city centers), she says, “If we’re successful putting in commuter rail, then Amtrak would like to run down the FEC, too. As we look to [future] usage of the tracks, we would put in a slot for them.” Additional tracks would likely be unnecessary, she says, since Amtrak would only run one or two trains a day in each direction.

Financing those dreams could be tough.

FDOT applied for federal grants twice in the past three years to fund Amtrak’s move to the FEC. They were denied both times owing to concerns about the project’s readiness. They will try again as soon as the Federal Railroad Administration announces a new round of grant opportunities, this time bolstered by a recently approved state pledge of $118 million. It is not known, however, when the Federal Railroad Administration will make new grants available.

A tri-county commuter service on the FEC will face funding challenges, too. Local budget deficits, state cutbacks, and an anti-spending sentiment in Washington could limit government contributions. The ideological debate over the wisdom of rail subsidies will likely factor in also: Supporters believe passenger rail curbs traffic congestion, creates jobs, lowers emissions, and reduces fuel dependence. Therefore it deserves government subsidies. Critics fear a tax-funded boondoggle which is better left to the private sector.

There are stretches of twin tracks, like this near El Portal, but mainly it’s single track.

The solution may lie with Tri-Rail — South Florida’s existing tri-county commuter service, which operates several miles west of the FEC, on tracks formerly owned by CSX Railway.

The Palm Beach Post reported in August that “legislation is likely to be proposed for the [state legislative] session beginning in January that would allow private firms to bid on running Tri-Rail.” The FEC, which is interested in bidding, claims it can operate Tri-Rail for $10 million less than the state. The company would use that leftover subsidy money to jumpstart passenger service on its own coastal line. An east-west connection between the two systems could give South Florida its first expansive commuter rail service.

Other companies, such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains, the Palm Beach Post goes on to say, are rumored to be interested in bidding too, so an FEC-dominated rail network in South Florida is not guaranteed. But, says FDOT’s Goddeau, “FEC is an operator which would surely love to, if they privatize Tri-Rail, get that money and run trains on Tri-Rail and then also their own trains on the FEC.” Privatization, she notes, “seems to be the way we’re trending as a state.”

Impatient for the arrival of passenger trains, one Miami official has put forward his own local, interim plan. Two months ago Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez proposed running a hybrid train/trolley system on the FEC from Midtown to downtown Miami. Suarez’s “trolley trains” would have rubber wheels to allow them to transition from rails to city streets (presumably at Biscayne Boulevard). The future of that proposal depends in large part on cooperation from the City of Miami. Whether the FEC would welcome Suarez’s trolleys on their newly revived freight line — and future passenger corridor — remains to be seen.

This much is certain: Several years’ worth of planning and fund-seeking still lay ahead. Back in 2009, rail study consultant Sue Gibbons cautioned, “In the very best of circumstances, it’s going to be six years or more before we actually have service running anywhere on this corridor — and probably many more years than that before the whole plan is implemented.”

That timeline, which FDOT confirms is still accurate, leaves Biscayne Corridor residents with four more years to dream.

Read this article on the Biscayne Times website.

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