While doing preliminary research on our “50 Most Powerful People” feature, which we run every 10 years or so, we got a suggestion without a name attached. One of our highly placed elites, an unpaid consultant on the project, was forward thinking.
“Get somebody from All Aboard Florida, whoever will be in charge in Broward and Palm Beach. That is going to have a tremendous impact on the region.”
The reference is to the high-speed train that is now under construction to link Miami and Orlando, with stops in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Building is well along. The station in Miami amounts to an urban renewal project, converting a seedy old railyard into a sprawling complex with offices, shopping and apartments—creating in effect its own destination.
The station is being designed to accommodate both the high-speed train, which has been dubbed Brightline, and the existing commuter service, Tri-Rail, which will switch some of its trains from the western CSX tracks to the far more useful FEC corridor. Those are the tracks that pass through the downtowns of all the coastal cities from Jacksonville to Miami. The stations in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm, while less spectacular, are well along as are the track improvements, as evidenced by the closure of main-grade crossings as improvements are made all along the 60-mile stretch that is due to open next year.
But even as the construction is underway, there is a growing perception that this bold and privately funded project may not be what it seems to be. People who study and write about such things are beginning to think the proposed 32 trains a day—a volume whose obvious disruptive effect has created opposition by communities along the route—may never actually happen.
It is hard to imagine in the first place that there would be demand for such frequent service, no matter how popular Disney World may be. That would be the kind of frequency we see on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which has infinitely greater population density. There have been some indications that the thrust of the concept may be toward something more realistic.
For instance, it was recently reported that the Brightline developers are looking for land for a possible stop at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International. That makes complete sense, for the tracks run right through the airport property. Such a station would be even more useful for Tri-Rail, which now requires a shuttle bus to connect the airport to its present station.
An airport stop was not part of the original announced Brightline plan, so we wonder what other stops might take form when the train actually runs. Initially, it will be more like a fast commuter train between West Palm Beach and Miami. The extension to Orlando is down the road and faces opposition from communities along the FEC, which object to the disruption of a train that does not serve them.
The initial 60-mile service will not have enough stops to make it a useful commuter train. But if you add the airport and a few stations strategically placed, say, in Boca Raton, Aventura and North Miami, and perhaps even a station as far north as Jupiter, you have an express commuter train that could hardly miss. This could be done in coordination with Tri-Rail, which is already considering such service on the FEC. It could be a transferrable service if, and when, Brightline completes the route to Orlando.
As for the cost of those stations, they need not initially be as impressive as those underway in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm. Tri-Rail began in the late 1980s with a number of temporary stations that were little more than wooden platforms—easily constructed and replaced at a later date by more permanent facilities.
Having Brightline working with Tri-Rail, if only on an interim basis, would also be an important step in solving the fast train’s political problems—notably the opposition from communities along the Treasure Coast, which see no benefit from a fast train that does not stop where they live.
A stop in Jupiter, which is possible because it is in Palm Beach County, one of the three counties involved in the Tri-Rail regional compact, would surely attract riders from adjacent Martin County. And could anyone doubt that it would not take long for Martin County officials to say, how about coming up another 25 miles to Stuart? That would mean expanding Tri-Rail north to another county and would be the beginning of a commuter service up the whole east coast of the state.
Which is, of course, what God’s plan was when he created Florida so many years ago. And sent Henry Flagler down to run it for him.