What’s on track for Tri-Rail? Downtown Miami stop, Jupiter service, maybe VA station
By: Dale King
If you’re wondering what former Boca Raton Mayor and Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams has been doing for the past couple of years, he’s been working on the railroad.
The longtime Boca and Palm Beach County politician who initiated the post of Palm Beach mayor – and held that job for a year – took over the reins of the authority that operates Tri Rail commuter service in December 2018 following the retirement of its former chief.
Abrams made a “virtual” visit to the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce last week to enlighten Government Affairs Committee members about what is happening along the 73-mile rail line. The tracks offer a road of steel to Tri-Rail, Amtrak, and CSX freight service in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties. Hence, the “tri” of “Tri-Rail.”
Lots of things are in the works, said the boss of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. Using an existing connection to the Florida East Coast rail line that parallels the CSX, Tri-Rail is going to “jump” some of its trains to the FEC to add a stop in downtown Miami.
He said the connection at Hialeah will start being used after Brightline installs its Positive Control System, an emergency braking method required by the federal government. The system will kick in if trains operate too fast or pass through a red signal.
At the other end, he said, Tri Rail will be extending service to Jupiter and is pondering a link going west, one that could result in the creation of a depot at the Veterans Administration Hospital off 45th Street in West Palm Beach.
With more riders coming from the Jupiter area, Abrams said, a station may even be feasible at Palm Beach International Airport. Right now, Tri Rail is focusing on accessibility to Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports.
“There are two rail corridors in South Florida, the one Tri Rail uses and the FEC,” he told about two dozen Chamber members and guests tuned to the SFRTA chief’s discussion via computer last Thursday.
“A lot of folks don’t realize that the two lines are connected at two locations, one in Hialeah and another in West Palm Beach. A third is planned in Pompano Beach, and the current Brightline terminal in Miami will also become a stop for Tri Rail.”
He said COVID-19 has meant trouble to both rail lines. Brightline, which started running fast-rail service between West Palm, Fort Lauderdale and Miami a year or two ago, had to shut it all down due to the coronavirus.
But that didn’t stop the operators of Brightline service. Construction continues on an extension of tracks to Orlando and Disney World. Abrams said the Orlando run may begin in 2022.
Calling Brightline mainly a tourist-based train as opposed to Tri Rail, more of a commuter-based convenience, he said the operators of the rapid trains are also building a similar rail line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
He said the operators “have deep pockets,” even without the participation of Sir Richard Branson, who dropped out of the Florida rail equation, taking his “Virgin” name with him.
Officials in Boca Raton last year gave the green signal to Brightline to build a train station that will provide a stop in Boca. Abrams said Tri Rail will also have a platform at the new Boca Brightline station to be located next to the city’s downtown library on NW Second Avenue.
Part of what Abrams called his “grand view” of Tri Rail’s future will include using of the Hialeah split to send about half of the system’s daily trains onto the FEC line with a terminus in downtown Miami, more convenient to shoppers and visitors.
During his address, Abrams, a familiar face in Boca, talked of the importance of public transportation, particularly in light of the current pandemic, which has ignited an exodus of newcomers to Florida.
“Rail is the only mode that takes cars off the road,” he said, noting Tri Rail’s commentary: “400 cars equal eight buses equal one train.”
Multi-rider transit will also be needed if the nation is to make positive changes in the climate. “We are ground zero for climate change. To reduce the carbon footprint, we need public transportation.”
He said northbound Tri Rail service currently terminates in Mangonia Park in Riviera Beach. Plans are in the works to extend commuter trains to Jupiter, which will open a spigot of passengers from the county’s northern tier.
That influx, he said, might require a station at PBIA. But the airport in West Palm Beach, he said, “has an abundance of parking and the fee is reasonable.”
He said Tri Rail already runs full-size shuttle buses to the airports from station stops near the aviation locations. Efforts are in the works to make the transfers more convenient.
Also, the Boca Raton depot on Yamato Road has shuttle service to Florida Atlantic University. Tri Rail trains run every 20 minutes during rush hour, he said, a service to all riders.
As he spoke of the Boca rail station, Abrams noted that Tri Rail issued an RFP (request for proposals) looking for companies interested in setting up shop on the seven or eight acres around the station owned by the transportation authority. The final decision will be made by Tri Rail’s board.
Another RFP will be advertised shortly for SFRTA-owned land near the Boynton Beach station.
Because the CSX tracks in Mangonia Park jut out to the west, Tri Rail could add a link to run service to the VA Hospital. Trains running farther to the west is another idea under consideration.
He said Brightline is also considering running a train line from Orlando to Tampa.
To make Tri-Rail trains safe for riders, sanitation is emphasized, and hand sanitizers are much more available. “Riders should be comfortable already.”