Downtown Miami passenger rail gathers steam
By Catherine Lackner
After a year that saw very little activity, the idea of running passenger trains directly into downtown Miami is heating up, say directors of Miami's Downtown Development Authority.
But they say they fear the plan might jump the tracks under the direction of the Florida Department of Transportation.
"It's bubbling up again," said board member Bruno Barreiro, who is also a Miami-Dade county commissioner, "but we feel FDOT is trying is trying to take over and run it from Tallahassee. We can't step in because they have not involved us."
"Now two competing departments are looking to do the same thing," said board member Jerome Hollo. "It's exciting, but we've got to see how it's going to work out."
"There is real movement," said board member Neisen Kasdin. "It's more real than it has been. We need to monitor this closely."
The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which runs Tri-Rail, has long expressed interest in extending service into downtown. Now, the commuter train runs daily from Miami to West Palm Beach on tracks owned by CSX, which means riders must disembark at Northwest 79th Street in Miami-Dade and board Metrorail to get downtown.
If Tri-Rail could use tracks owned by Florida East Coast (FEC) Railroad, it would have a straight shot into the central business district, because the tracks parallel I-95. FEC hauls freight, not passengers, on those tracks and, though the railroad has said it will consider changing that, nothing substantive has happened.
But, says Amy Goddeau, who directs the project for the Florida Department of Transportation, "We've been doing studies and working on this project for years with our partners at the regional transportation authority. Many options have merit, and they are being considered."
Both agencies have the same goal, she said: to provide better passenger service along the 85-mile corridor that runs down Florida's East Coast from Jupiter to Miami.
The transportation department met with metropolitan planning organizations in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to discuss options, which included bus and rail.
"In all cases, rail was considered preferable," Ms. Goddeau said.
All the metropolitan planning organizations approved the rail plan, she said, except Miami-Dade's — "They wanted more time to break it down into bite-sized pieces that would be more affordable." Negotiations will begin again next year.
When passenger rail discussions began years ago, a tentative timetable said commuter trains could be running into downtown Miami by 2017. That timetable might change if funding could be found, Ms. Goddeau said.
"Right now, there's no money that has been identified for this project," she said. "If funding could be found — federal, state, local or some other source — things could speed up." The Obama administration has identified mass transit as a priority.
The transportation department's next step is to apply "technical tools," including a simulated rail test, to see if the project makes sense, Ms. Goddeau said.
"Until we know the details of ridership, and how we can move passengers and freight on those tracks, it's impossible to estimate what the costs will be." Those studies, she said, will begin next month.
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