Tiny agency’s leap of faith to bring downtown roaring back
Written by Michael Lewis on November 15, 2016
Downtown has come roaring all the way back. The last piece fell into place Oct. 31.
A third of a century ago the former focal point of Miami had sunk so low that its stores were a wasteland unless you were a tourist buying a suitcase, shoes or electronics. Contrast that with the just-opened gleaming Brickell City Centre stores.
A third of a century ago nobody would dream of living downtown north of the river and south of the Omni area. Now population is mushrooming by the tens of thousands in gleaming high-rises.
A third of a century ago you saw no pedestrians downtown after 6 p.m. unless they were the homeless. Now our sidewalks are filled with the young, walking dogs and pushing strollers.
These changes are well chronicled. But other than Miami Today’s report last week, nobody has tasted the final piece of the cake, the piece covered with all the icing.
The final step was taken – reluctantly by some – when an obscure government agency agreed to add the final funds that will bring a three-county commuter railway rolling into the heart of downtown within 18 months.
That railway is Tri-Rail. It will link Palm Beach and Broward counties with downtown Miami via a network of 18 other stations, finally giving downtown real commuter rail to and from cities to the north. These trains will roll into a vast MiamiCentral Station complex now rising to also serve All Aboard Florida, a much faster limited-access rail link to Orlando.
Rail’s detractors brand it a 19th century solution to a 21st century mobility crisis. But with the 20th century solution, the automobile, stalled in heavy Miami traffic, a parallel solution from any century is welcome.
So welcome to Tri-Rail. There are no more tracks to lay for its trips downtown, no added stations to build, no trains to buy. All that was needed was to connect to All Aboard Florida’s station complex.
That connection is already rising. And Oct. 31, the final $17.5 million to build it was approved, courtesy of the City of Miami’s South East Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, which oversees some of the area through which Tri-Rail trains will now pass.
Commissioners debated about an hour before they agreed to help fund the Tri-Rail link to the new station. Some were concerned that the railway won’t raise property values enough for the agency to recoup its $17.5 million, because the agency’s funds come from increases in area property taxes.
But in the end, the five city commissioners sitting as the redevelopment agency’s board took the leap of faith.
Any railroad – or, in fact, any major transportation investment – is indeed a leap of faith that it will attract enough riders to make it worth building, but not necessarily to recoup the total investment, because transit usually runs at a loss, just as roadways don’t make a profit carrying automobiles.
Miami-Dade County took that leap by building the Metrorail system in the 1970s. Metrorail’s use has grown steadily but never has it broken even and it never will. It just gets us from here to there. Few government operations expect to profit.
The reason private enterprise is building All Aboard Florida, in truth, is not to clean up big carrying passengers. Developers would be tickled to break even on the railway. They expect their real profits from the stations along the line.
Railways have always been real estate businesses, using free land to make the big money. Transportation has usually been a byproduct.
That’s why Henry Flagler brought his railway to downtown Miami at the end of the 19th century – he would make his profit from the free land he got and the hotels he built along the line.
That was long ago. Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel in Miami’s heart was emblematic of the city when it opened. But the hotel was razed in 1930, and by 1963 the passenger station downtown was gone – about the time the center of the city began its decline.
That decline is over. Downtown is vibrant, full of sports and arts, housing and dining to go with the professional offices that never left. It’s a shining magnet – provided that you can get there with your blood pressure under control in ever-growing traffic.
Tri-Rail is just one link in the mobility solution, but as Commissioner Francis Suarez said during the Oct. 31 funding vote, “this will be the catalyst for mass transit in Miami and Miami-Dade County.” Let’s hope he’s correct.
Either way, the vote was the final step in bringing downtown all the way back to the glory of the past. Add to Tri-Rail that full web of mass transit and it will be even easier to take advantage of downtown shopping, living, office space, sports, and arts and culture.
That will take us beyond comparisons with past downtown glories and into glittering uncharted territory.