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When Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer took his first Brightline train trip to Miami, he was instantly sold on the idea that his city had to go along for ride.
A Brightline station was a must for his downtown, where no passenger train had stopped for more than 50 years.
“When Brightline was set up we wondered from the beginning why they weren’t thinking of Boca Raton as a separate center of commerce and tourism, because it is,” he said in an interview.
So he called Brightline, and called and called: monthly, weekly and then daily, said Brightline President Patrick Goddard.
Last week, after nearly three years of lobbying Brightline and pitching constituents on the idea, the railroad and city broke ground on a station that is scheduled to open later this year.
As South Florida has enjoyed a building boom and become the darling of out-of-town companies looking to relocate to the region, passenger rail travel has become a major selling point for politicians and city and county promoters as they seek to up their towns’ development game.
Within the next five years, transportation and development analysts say, tri-county area residents could have access to no fewer than three rail options: Brightline and its regional high speed link to Orlando, Tri-Rail, the longtime north-south commuter line that runs west of I-95 from Palm Beach County to Miami International Airport, and a “Coastal Link” commuter connection that would run in Broward and Miami-Dade counties along the Florida East Coast Railway corridor to be shared with Brightline.
Even before Brightline launched its service among the downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, cities up and down the coast flooded company management with calls about placing stations in their towns. At the same time, they pitched the Florida Department of Transportation, which is orchestrating the Coast Link project, to include them.
What did they have to do to win a prize?
In Brightline’s case, Boca Raton officials, among other things, needed to show how many local passengers would be willing to drive to a station to take a train ride, said Gregory Stuart, executive director of Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is a federally mandated agency that is responsible for making policy on local transportation issues.
“it’s all about the business case for them,” said Stuart, who grew up in Boca Raton and remembers the Florida East Coast Railway passenger service that ended in 1968 after a run of nearly 40 years.
“Boca Raton and some of the cities north of Boca were really vocal trying to get with Brightline,” he said. “Pompano Beach did a full-court press to get a development site at City Hall.”
Brightline spokesman Ben Porritt said Brightline wants to “connect city pairs too short to fly and too long to drive. We think that business model still works in the state of Florida between Miami and Orlando,” he said.
“There was not a city we haven’t heard from,” since Brightline first announced its plans in 2014, he added. “Still today we get calls from other cities along the corridor that want to take advantage of our system.”
He said the railroad wants to figure out more ways for people to connect with its trains through its proprietary Brightline+ car services and through county transit systems within 5 to 10 miles if each station.
This isn’t the first time rail and development have dovetailed. In the late 1920s, after a land boom had gone bust, Philadelphia utilities magnate Clarence Geist acquired the assets of Boca Raton city father and architect Addison Mizner out of bankruptcy. Those assets included the exclusive private Boca Raton Club, now known as The Boca Raton, which Geist wanted to expand.
“He realized he needed a nice railroad station for his guests to arrive in,” said Mary Csar, executive director of the Boca Raton Historical Association.
He asked the Florida East Coast Railway to build him a station at 747 South Dixie Highway in 1930, and they did. “He would meet his guests at the station and take them back to the resort. Everyone who arrived here was incognito. He was really a savior during the depression,” said Csar.
Some see the today’s Brightline service as a continuum from those pioneering days in Florida, where the arrival of passenger train service, or word of it, generates new development. The company’s mere existence is now a major talking point for recruiters trying to woo out-of-town companies to their cities and counties.
“Train travel … increases a lot more economic opportunity going forward,” said Paul Angelone, senior director at the Urban land Institute in Washington. “It is something you see pre-pandemic and post pandemic. Train stations and other rapid transit stations provide a premium on reinvestment even after we’ve seen the pandemic happen.”
Both developers and companies in search of landing spots for corporate relocations see upsides in being near rail stops.
“In downtown Fort Lauderdale, it’s one of the few places that can absorb the rapid growth with significant urban development,” he said. “You see that around the [Fort Lauderdale] Brightline station where the Kushner Companies purchased a lot of sites.”
The firm, in conjunction with a Denver-based real estate investment group, is planning multiple high rise residential towers west of the FEC line near Broward Boulevard, including what would be they city’s tallest tower.
“People want to be in walkable neighborhoods,” Angelone said, “and train stations allow for that.”
Business operators agree.
Abe Ng, founder of a Miami-Dade-based restaurant chain called Sushi Maki, has set up a location on Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard.
“It would be wonderful to get on a Brightline train and visit our stores in Miami, Aventura Boca Raton and West Palm Beach,” he said. “You can navigate a little more with ride share.”
“For businesses it allows you to draw from work pools traditionally outside our radius,” Ng added.
Though not every town that wanted a Brightline station got one, there’s a consolation prize. Hollywood and four other Broward cities, as well as Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, have been named as preliminary station locations for the proposed Coastal Link commuter system now under study by the Florida Department of Transportation. The line is slated to become a reality in 2027.
Phil Schwab, project manager at the department said in an email that “cities did not necessarily apply to host stations.”
“Station planning had started over 10 years ago through an earlier study, known as the Coastal Link, that had identified over 100 potential station locations along 85 miles of the FEC line that covered Miami Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County,” he said. “The 100 potential station locations were screened down to 26 locations in the three counties under that study, with more screening needed.”
State and county planners envision slower commuter trains that would operate separately, but also along the same Florida East Coast corridor used by Brightline.
Designed to ferry passengers between Deerfield Beach and Aventura in northern Miami-Dade County, the proposed station stops are Deerfield, Pompano Beach, Oakland Park, Fort Lauderdale, the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport and Hollywood.
Schwab said those six picks need county commission approval.
The connection in Aventura would give Broward passengers entrée to a proposed commuter line that would terminate at the MiamiCentral station in downtown Miami.
Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy noted that like Boca Raton, his city was also served by passenger trains in the 1920s as vacationers flocked to the Hollywood Beach Resort, which opened in 1925. Developer Joseph Young, who built it, “actually touted the fact the city had the Florida East Coast Railway running through it,” Levy said.
Levy said he pitched the city’s possibilities and development activities to Brightline officials. But at the time, the Brightline’s business model was that of a regional express railroad between South and Central Florida.
He acknowledged Boca Raton was a suitable candidate for a station because it is halfway between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach and stops can be made without cutting deeply into the travel time between those two cities.
A Coastal Link station in Hollywood, he said, offers opportunities for residents from neighboring South Broward cities to have access to rail destinations up and down the coast. Passengers could also connect with a Brightline train at Fort Lauderdale.
“The station will serve Hallandale Beach residents, although the Aventura station will be there almost as close,” he said. “Dania Beach residents will be served by the Hollywood or [Fort Lauderdale airport] station.”
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Levy acknowledged the existence of an argument now in play between the FDOT and Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis over what type of crossing should be installed at the New River to accommodate trains from Brightline, Coastal Link and existing FEC freight service. The dispute looms as a potential drag on what is already a five-year timetable for a build-out.
The department favors one of three bridge possibilities of varying heights, arguing they are cheaper than a tunnel, whose cost it places at above $1 billion. Trantalis says the bridge option would divide the city and disrupt its social and economic continuity. He also says FDOT is inflating its tunnel cost estimates.
Whatever the outcome, Levy and other assert the southern end of the Broward commuter system could be activated before the river crossing issues are resolved. But no decisions have been made. The department and county still have several public meetings to conduct, with county commissioners holding a late February vote on whether to proceed with a commuter system.
Between the studies, funding, design and construction, department officials estimated commuter trains might be able to roll in 2027.
Levy is eager to move forward as quickly possible.
“There’s no other opportunity for us,” he said. “This railroad is it, and we definitely ought be taking advantage of it and have it work for us.”