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It’s been nearly 54 years since a passenger train stopped in downtown Boca Raton, when in July 1968, the final Florida East Coast Railway pulled out of a decades-old station at 747 South Dixie Highway on its way to Jacksonville.
But on Tuesday, less than a mile to the north and a few minutes past 10 a.m., Brightline company executives, local politicians, business people and construction workers cheered as they broke ground on a new Brightline station.
The station symbolically ushers in a revival of passenger rail travel for the upscale city, which is now the scene of fancy new hotels, condo towers and offices for newly arrived businesses.
City residents are just months away from catching Brightline trains from the station, which will cover 38,000 square feet on n a 1.8-acre site between the Florida East Coast Railway tracks and the city’s public library.
“As a premier business and leisure destination, Boca Raton is a perfect fit for Brightline and will be an integral part of our network that will further connect the state of Florida,” said Patrick Goddard, the rail line’s president.
“Brightline stations help enhance the local communities and economies where we operate and provide travelers with quick access to state-wide lifestyle and tourist destinations,” he added.
The Boca Raton station is expected to be completed in the fall of this year. Construction of a large parking garage started last December.
The station will bring to five the number of South Florida stops Brightline is expected to serve by year’s end, joining existing downtown stations in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and a station under construction at Aventura in northern Miami-Dade County.
The privately owned line, which focuses on leisure and business travelers, resumed operations early last November after a lengthy layoff caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both before and after the interruption, leaders of various South Florida cities aggressively lobbied Brightline to place stations in their towns. Few were as aggressive as Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer, Goddard said.
Quickly, monthly calls became weekly calls, and then daily conversations.
In an interview, Singer said backing from local residents was a key element in drawing the railroad.
“When Brightline was set up, we were wondering from the beginning, ‘why weren’t they thinking of Boca Raton as a separate center of commerce and tourism, because it is,” he said. “We have more than half of the corporate headquarters in all of Palm Beach County — more than West Palm. And we are centrally located.”
“There are a lot of reasons people will want to come here and I think the residents understood the value of being able to commute down to Miami, and to West Palm without getting on I-95,” Singer said. “I think people understood that value proposition and luckily Brightline understood the value of the ridership from Boca, and that’s why we’re here today.”
Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of Discover the Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism promotion arm, said the station project is a manifestation of what industrialist and rail baron Henry Flagler delivered to the region in the late 19th Century.
“The rails of Henry Flagler’s east coast railway first arrived in Boca in 1895,” Pesquera said, “fostering tourism and agricultural development that is the very basis of what our county was founded on and continues as a key pillar to this day.”
“Today we come full circle as Brightline’s modern rapid rail service breaks ground in Boca, carrying that torch running on the same track beds that Mr. Flagler’s crews laid over 125 years ago,” he said.
Now, the company is turning its attention to completing its extension to Orlando, the new stations in South Florida and the ramp-up of local “last mile” transportation options to carry customers from the train stations and their final destinations.
The Boca Raton station, designed by Zyscovich Architects of Miami and now being built by Kaufman Lynn Construction of Delray Beach, will feature approximately 38,000 square feet of space which will include Brightline’s signature autonomous MRKT, the rail line’s cashless retail market that enables travelers to use their credit cards to access the shop and buy snacks, prepared foods, beverages, toiletries and small electronics such as chargers and headphones.
As with other Brightline stops, the station will include passenger lounges, touchless turnstiles and high-speed WiFi.
Although a private enterprise, public money is helping to pay for the project.
Last year, the city was awarded a $16.3 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grant from the Federal Railroad Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, to fund a portion of the construction.
Besides the federal grant, the city is putting up $9.9 million for a 455-space parking garage.
Management is forecasting that 129,000 people a year will ride Brightline trains to visit the city, in addition to commuters and other local residents who will use the line.
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But since restarting service last November, the company again has been plagued by collisions between its trains and vehicles at South Florida rail crossings. In most cases, motorists sought to beat the trains at gated crossings. Through early January, at least four accidents with five deaths have occurred on the rail line.
The company and federal rail regulators say they are working with local communities to prevent future incidents.
From South to Central Florida
The company’s biggest immediate goal is to complete its 170-mile extension from West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport via Cocoa Beach.
That project is 70% finished, Goddard said. Last week, the company started crew training runs from West Palm Beach to the Cocoa area so that train engineers and conductors can familiarize themselves with the terrain.
In an interview Tuesday, Goddard said talks are continuing with public officials about a commuter line in Broward County, and future stations at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and PortMiami. He also said Brightline+, the company’s new local car services between stations and passengers’ homes and other local destinations, is gaining traction.
Of those issues, he sized them up in the following way:
- Brightline+: Forty percent of the passengers are using it. “We went from providing the interstitial part of the trip to providing the entire trip end-to-end and I think it’s making a big difference to people.”
- A potential station at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport: “There is still a discussion happening with the Fort Lauderdale airport. I think we’re also waiting to see where we end up with the commuter rail system. There are active discussions happen with Broward and Miami-Dade counties about a commuter rail system. I think that’s all on the table right now.”
- A potential PortMiami station: “We are continuing to have conversations with PortMiami. There has been a lot of uncertainty in the cruise industry and I think for that reason we haven’t been putting pressure on them, and they have other priorities. I’m certain we’ll revisit it but we’re focused on South Florida to Central Florida.”