Monday, August 07, 2006

FEC Tracks for Commuter Rail? In our Lifetime?


We found this in the Miami Herald today (8/7) regarding the chances of seeing a commuter rail running from Palm Beach into downtown Miami. If and when it happens, it will be like a heart bypass on a sick patient. It will increase vitality and jump-start a sustained renaissance:

Back-channel talks have been under way between top state transportation officials and Florida East Coast Industries over the 82-mile corridor that runs through all of the redeveloping east-side downtowns from Miami to West Palm Beach.

''I think it's a huge opportunity to create a light-rail option,'' Stutler said last week. ``I think it would be really exciting. We've got to create more [transportation] options and we've got to be smarter how we retrofit our communities to deal with the future needs.''

Most transit experts believe the FEC corridor that Henry Flagler built is where Tri-Rail should have been from the get-go. But the 1980s-era FEC wasn't interested, so the state turned to CSX and bought the old Seaboard line along I-95.

Today, the FEC corridor is ripe for high-density, high-rise, mixed-use development. More than 1.1 million people live within a half-mile of the rail line in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Imagine what the area could become over the next three decades as population continues to rise, land becomes scarcer, traffic congestion worsens and cities retool vertically.

With a few exceptions, most of the FEC corridor from Miami to Jupiter is 100-feet wide -- plenty of room to lay two ribbons exclusively for FEC freight and two for future South Florida passenger service.

DIFFERENT COMPANY

And today's publicly traded FECI, headed by longtime Miami business fixture and power broker Adolfo Henriques, is a much different company than the one that wouldn't negotiate in the 1980s.

FECI is not only a major freight hauler, but one of the state's largest -- and most politically connected -- landowners, especially since it acquired the real-estate and development empire of Bush's old business partner and mentor, Armando Codina, earlier this year.

Henriques and Codina know FECI is sitting on a gold mine.

The state might agree to buy the corridor and provide the infrastructure to guarantee uninterrupted freight and passenger service. Imagine FECI agreeing to sell some of the right-of-way in return for tax credits that will help it build workforce housing near some stations and secure air rights over other key stations.

''As a resident of this community, I believe we need to work very aggressively to develop a viable public-transportation system,'' Henriques said. ``Passenger traffic [on the FEC corridor] needs to occur. We're prepared to discuss it. I'm willing to discuss anything.''

TIMING IS RIGHT

The timing is right. The corridor is needed. Traffic congestion already ranks among the top issues cited by voters in every poll. FDOT can't pave its way out of the problem. We'll worry about how Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach counties can pay for their respective shares another day.

Want to bet a deal gets done before Bush leaves office in January?

''I think you should stay tuned,'' Stutler said.

Got a commuting question or an idea for a future column? Contact Larry Lebowitz at streetwise@MiamiHerald.com or call him at 305-376-3410.

UpDate (5/3/2010):
Here's an excerpt from today's Miami Herald By Alfonso Chardy. After nearly 4-years, maybe our message in the "cloud" is finally getting through.

``All aboard!'' shouted Amtrak conductor Shaun Robertson as the passenger train departed from downtown Miami Saturday morning, headed to Jacksonville on a track along Florida's eastern shore -- rails chiefly reserved for freight trains.

Robertson's classic call marked the beginning of a historic journey, a special train Amtrak operated to check the feasibility of resuming passenger service between the two east Florida cities.

The last time the densely-populated eastern shore rail corridor had regular passenger service was in 1968. Since then, the Florida East Coast Railway or FEC, which traces its history to railroad and hotel pioneer Henry Flagler, has largely been reserved for cargo trains.

State and local officials aboard the special train said that if Amtrak restarts regular passenger service on the line, it may lead to a second commuter rail service in South Florida -- one running on the same FEC track east of Interstate 95 and through the downtown areas of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

The FEC commuter rail service would be in addition to -- or an extension of -- the existing Tri-Rail commuter rail now operating on tracks west of I-95.

While planning for eastern shore rail passenger service has been around for years, state and local officials believe they have a better chance of realizing their dream now because the Obama administration is interested in fostering a national rail system to improve rail connections between urban centers both with high-speed rail between cities and more efficient commuter rail between counties.

An expression of official interest in FEC passenger service was the presence of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist at the send-off ceremony for the special train by the track just west of the Freedom Tower and the American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami...."

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