Brightline won an endorsement Friday for a tax-funded commuter line on the tracks it once used for express trains, with Miami-Dade County commissioners approving the framework for a future deal.
The vote didn’t commit Miami-Dade to anything beyond continuing the talks that have been underway for more than a year with the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
His last day in office comes Monday. His successor — Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava — takes over the negotiations for funding a train system with multiple stops between Brightline’s existing Miami station and one the county is already paying to build in Aventura.
That station requires a $76 million payment, but creating a new commuter line will be much more expensive. A May proposal from Brightline floated a $350 million price tag for the full system, which would require new trains similar to the double-decker ones Tri-Rail uses for its commuter line running north from Miami International Airport.
The resolution approved Friday by outgoing commissioners sets targets for one piece of that future agreement. Along with the costs to purchase and run the trains, Miami-Dade would need to pay a yearly fee to have access to the private tracks Brightline used for the express service it launched in 2018 and then suspended in March when the pandemic hit.
Under the resolution approved unanimously Friday, Miami-Dade would pay no more than $50 million upfront and $12 million a year to access the tracks. Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor overseeing transportation, said Florida would likely cover the $50 million, and Miami-Dade the yearly fee. The plan is for 30 years of payments for a 90-year access agreement, she said.
“This item will move us ahead,” said Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose district includes Aventura and whose final term expires in 2022. It “provides the framework for the parties … to continue negotiations.”
Passing the resolution doesn’t commit Miami-Dade to pay anything, and Brightline was unable to reach a full deal for the commuter line before the end of the Gimenez administration.
One contentious issue is where to place stations, with business groups, developers and elected leaders lobbying for depots near them. For now, Miami-Dade isn’t picking spots, and the list of stations includes Wynwood, Midtown, Little Haiti, North Miami and El Portal.
“Part of the reason it was difficult to come to any kind of agreement in total on the project was there are a lot of outstanding issues related to the number of stops, the capital that will be required, the type of service that will be required and who exactly will be operating the service,” Moon said.
Miami-Dade could pay Brightline or Tri-Rail to run the new commuter service, or arrange for both entities to manage the system. The Miami-Dade project offers a new source of revenue for Brightline, which saw its business model wither in 2020 with the halt of train service.
Jose Gonzalez, a top executive at Brightline parent Florida East Coast Industries, said Friday the company planned to consider resuming service in early 2021 if the area’s economy has recovered enough.
“A lot of our business deals with tourism,” he said. “We’re looking at probably something in the first quarter of 2021 to see how the market has come back to downtown and to the port.”
Working out the details of a future deal will fall to Levine Cava. She hasn’t said whether she’ll be retaining Moon and other Gimenez deputies, including primary negotiator Alice Bravo, the county’s transportation director.
Representing South Miami-Dade for six years as the District 8 commissioner, Levine Cava praised the administration’s work in negotiating the access fee, which had been set at $29 million in the May proposal.
“I know we have great support going forward,” Levine Cava said. “Thank you so much for making this a better deal.”
In a statement, Brightline hailed the vote as a big win as five of the 13 commission seats prepare to turnover Tuesday after the Nov. 3 elections.
“This is a tremendous milestone for Miami-Dade County and all the credit goes to the county commission and their vision to improve mobility in our community,” said Brightline President Patrick Goddard.