Brightline To Bright Future

From Troubled Tri-Rail To Brightline To Re-making Rail’s Vision Thing

Entrepreneurs are transforming an abandoned rail yard and downtown dead-zone into the MiamiCentral hub serving the City’s major makeover as an urban tourist destination. Courtesy of the Virgin Trains USA website, the above map sketches an ambition to use trains to tie together Miami real estate and give it staying power.

Brightline now runs from Miami to West Palm Beach. Phase 2 will terminate at Orlando Airport or, possibly, Disney World. As such, Brightline makes convenient a two-for-one vacation to compete for global tourists. While Disney’s Magic set the 20th Century standard, Miami’s recent emphasis of its nickname as “The Magic City” is part of its intent to set a 21st Century standard for urban tourism. As if to show synergy among these two attractions separated by a three hour train ride, Brightline in its first year signed up Virgin’s marketing genius.

Our goal should figure out how all these new elements can change this metro’s Tri-Rail service to become effective.

My March 2019 visit contrasts starkly with my 2015 pre-Brightline visit.  Then, I studied the Miami airport’s Intermodal Center (MIC) as it was being completed. While not a downtown central station, MIC was worth study; it seemed to integrate modes well. Yet MIC’s 25 year struggle under the Florida DOT shows how foreign the concept of regional rail is to America’s transportation hierarchy. By contrast, Brightline offers a model so they understand.

When MIC’s car rental facility opened in 2010, other buildings began in earnest. At first, only buses came. Then, MetroRail arrived from the east and downtown in 2012. As was Miami’s curse, riders lagged expectations. (MetroRail has 43% fewer riders per mile than the same-sized metropolis and same technology as Atlanta’s MARTA.)  Then in 2015, Tri-Rail’s north-south commuter corridor terminated at MIC’s beautiful, airy platforms. They did little to improve Tri-Rail’s stagnation relative to its vibrant metropolis. Amtrak seems unlikely to use its platforms, despite considerable cost of accommodating the national rail’s requirements.

As part of my site routine, I rode Tri-Rail in 2015. It was OK. Their Sunday Special cost almost nothing; trying to attract riders. Yet it is widely known that Tri-Rail’s strategic problem is its corridor runs several miles west of where most people live. To distribute passengers, Tri-Rail depends on shuttle buses. Of its 18 stations, only its terminus at West Palm Beach is real TOD. More than most lines, Tri-Rail passengers see a lot of out-lying, low-rise warehouses and very little urban life. 

This corridor mistake perpetually discourages solutions to Tri-Rail. Its ridership made only small gains in the last decade and now serves only 14k daily in the 7th largest U.S. metropolis whose residents increased by 50% during Tri-Rail’s 30 years. Hard to get to, Tri-Rail requires a subsidy of two-thirds of its operating costs, among the highest in the U.S.  

Planning agencies wanted to fix this problem by connecting to the Florida East Coast (FEC) corridor that became Brightline. A 2010 FEC corridor study indicated Tri-Rail ridership would quadruple. Plans got stuck on the drawing board. Driven by vision, Brightline took the initiative; upgrading FEC’s tracks and 180 crossings, mostly using private funds. (These major expenses had halted Tri-Rail plans.)  Further hand-feeding Tri-Rail,  MiamiCentral has a platform so Tri-Rail’s west corridor, 30 years late, can connect to downtown. After curious delays, it opens in 2020… two years after Brightline started service.

Taking only four years to build the only private railroad in 100 years, Brightline’s energy finally nudged Tri-Rail. It recently laid a few miles of track connecting to the FEC and MiamiCentral. But, Tri-Rail has not built any of the infrastructure for the 24 local stations and service outlined in its 2010 plan (FTA funded) and detailed in 2014. (This map helps visualize.)

All these tales of public management woe and sad numbers indicated to me (as far back as 2015) that Tri-Rail was unlikely to help solve southeast Florida’s growing congestion, nor give good value to taxpayers. I also felt then, as I certainly do now, that utilizing more fully the FEC corridor with local train service also would require some authority for Transit Demand Management (TDM) to make a significant reduction in road congestion.

Since Tri-Rail and MIC had few positive lessons for further study, I filed my 2015 notes and scorecard that I used in my “Urbanophile” series and refocussed on metros with legacy systems. This became the topic of “What Stations Teach.” Like many bad experiences, I forgot how troubled Tri-Rail is.

Fast Forward. My penalty for selective memory loss is I rode Tri-Rail again on March 19, 2019. I regret to report, it is worse. I will spare you details. But at times, it felt like I’d paid to go to Hell for doing the right thing. My two hour train ride (as punishment for memory loss) concludes that Tri-Rail cannot correct its core mistake of choosing the wrong corridor and, thus, resists improvement and, thus, remains another of transit’s missed opportunities to offer a viable alternative to the car. 

photo courtesy of Brightline website

Is This How The New Vision starts? I left Tri-Rail’s West Palm Beach station on a shuttle and walked inside the Brightline station. I entered what I soon saw as a new world. I even heard it. Replacing Tri-Rail’s unhappy, untrained conductor’s voice, a pleasant recording intones: “Brightline welcomes you to a care-free, car-free ride.”  They had me. Their thoughtful detailing showed everywhere; from a wonderfully welcoming station to a coach that was a clear notch above domestic jets. So was the cart service. But “the experience is the sweetener” as Brightline’s CEO is often quoted.

One of my key take-aways on Brightline’s potential involves frequency. While Brightline has only a few more daily trains, Brightline took me the same distance in half the time and delivers to the region’s three main downtowns. While Tri-Rail tickets are 60% less, Brightline’s fare still easily beats driving costs when factoring in the anxiety and wasted time of congestion. And while the outside of Brightline’s coaches are labeled “Smarter travel is here,” South Florida still will need TDM’s economics to get enough people out of their cars to reduce road congestion.

My other key take-away is how Brightline is stimulating urban redevelopment. I was impressed by the promising recovery of West Palm’s run-down downtown. Brightline’s parent FECI (Florida East Coast Industries) is descendant of South Florida’s original rail and major real estate developer. FECI has interests in several properties around its station and was actively advertising leases to passengers. All this reinforces our reminder that rails built American and will rebuild it again.

While Fort Lauderdale’s downtown is almost twice as large and was vibrant before Brightline came, here also the nature of development deals make it hard to know FECI’s full involvement. Almost defiant of South Florida’s known real estate roller-coaster, Fort Lauderdale’s new construction nonetheless seems on a stimulated TOD trajectory exceeded only by MiamiCentral.

Taken from the back of what would become MiamiCentral, my 2015 photo contrasts what Brightline brings to this old FECI railyard surrounded mostly by government buildings. There had been few major private investments over the previous 50 years since the station was torn down in the 1960s. Today’s view of the new FECI properties (starting to wear the Virgin stamp) include a large, high-end retail mall at the base of two new Class A office buildings being leased. At least two residential towers are in the mix. Not found on their website, the poster below labels the seven projected buildings for the MiamiCentral complex. (I took the photo through a window, so I apologize for the blur.)  The square footage gives scope.

MiamiCentral also is neighbor and serves as catalyst of the demolished Miami Arena becoming the WorldCenter, a convention hotel complex as part of a 23-acre redevelopment. It boasts to being the second largest TOD in the U.S. after New York’s Hudson Yards at Penn Station.

Back in my coach, my first Brightline ride ended at MiamiCentral. To get immersed in the redevelopment that I’d only read about, I stepped outside. As I walked around seeing the above parking lot being rapidly transformed, I also see excavation for what is billed as Miami’s tallest building, the mixed-use Okan Tower of mostly luxury residential units. 

Standing at the 100 year-old terminus of the rail corridor that built Florida, all this adds up to what I call my “gradual Epiphany;” offering hope that American trains’ seven decade decline could come to an end. But, I also know the incentive really comes from where rails began; develop the real estate near stations.  Today if we capture enough of those rising values, we eventually get regional rail. Ignore that incentive (as Tri-Rail did) and even the love of trains ends up as just talk and money not well-invested.

Lessons for planting seeds (studies) in the Reauthorization. Tri-Rail shows how transit often misses key ingredients to compete with the car. That contrasts with Brightline’s excellence at improving land values around its stations and tapping into existing transit. As private entrepreneur’s seeking profit, Brightline has done more for a train line in three years than any I’ve studied in Europe and, certainly, here. But, we cannot forget that Brightline is the low-hanging fruit because it owned the corridor and land around the stations.  

In most legacy systems, there is too little low-hanging fruit. Capturing real estate value needs to be organized by its corridor first. For most legacy corridors (our blue corridors in the map below), they will need new authorities before true regional rail emerges. (Again, my long-hand of this is in my current concluding chapter of “What Stations Teach.”)

Brightline’s FEC corridor actually is a prototype that indicates my proposed strategy might work. While Brightline is attracting more of the metro’s commuters, its business plan depends on finishing the connection to Orlando.  But to get rail service to the 12+ cities in the FEC Corridor, Florida should create a new metropolitan agency to figure out how the FEC corridor can serve substantially more commuters who need more than the three Brightline express stops. 

Without repeating a lot of political in-fighting and gossip, I’d think Florida would want to set up the region to take care of its transportation. And part of the deal is that this agency also has TDM authority to reduce road congestion economically so FEC corridor works for all of the metro’s cities and not just the three largest ones. The Miami metro’s issues are political. Brightline has shown the economic feasibility is good. It is in Florida’s interests to step-up. 

The pretext for a new agency starts this Fall when the Reauthorization is seeded with studies for regional rail. In my original strategy and rough head-count, the Miami metro was to provide three Member’s votes. A week later, my rethink says at least 6 Members should support the studies, plus maybe even some log-rolling. Already R4RR is making momentum !

And now, the conclusion of that promised drama lesson… positioning, really. 

Shifting from politics to progress, I note that on April 2 Richard Branson came to MiamiCentral to announce bonds (made tax-free by Florida) had been sold. In fact, bids were higher than hoped. Now, the new Brightline/Virgin partnership could build tracks to Orlando and tap their biggest revenue from operations. The entourage of Branson’s marketing mystique seems to be working.

MiamiCentral is where this movie trailer begins and ends. MiamiCentral leads this miraculous transformation of Miami’s extensive downtown dead-zone and is supported by brilliant marketing. Its premiere includes a large exhibit of “The Wizard of Oz”; celebrating the 80th anniversary of the movie’s 1939 release. My email’s photo of Brightline’s neon marquee has two feet sticking out; but you can see this better below. You know the story: Dorothy’s guardians’ house fell on the sister of The Wicked Witch. 

Also in 1939, our storyline gets richer because America’s last major train station was finished: LA’s Union Station, also the scene of many Hollywood films. The coincidence is too great to ignore. After peaking in World War Two (another great drama that brought America together), train travel declined for the rest of the Century and sputtered into this one. So, can we agree that Brightline shows America that train travel adds value again? 

As for our drab Reauthorization, I suggest a bigger story to think through and repeat. Remember how the Wicked Witch’s sister obstructed Dorothy from finding her way back home?  Could it be obstructing our future is not just car-dependency, but includes old transportation agencies? And is “the way home” really America using trains again to help us re-settle the continent, this time more compactly and sustainably corridor by corridor?  

And is returning to our past essentially both progressive and conservative; values capable of making a new social contract for transportation that supports alternative modes ? And do the Brightline entrepreneurs suitably represent a changed worldview by developing this alternative vision for travel that, in essence, skirted existing agency roadblocks?  

And was the last Witch not killed by throwing water on her?  And is not the water just the common sense that we can no longer afford laws, or advertising, that encourages all Americans to own a car?  And instead, don’t we need laws to encourage better alternatives?

Well… I have to admit that I’ve packed lots into a 62 minute ride on a choo-choo train. (But, it was more fun than I’ve had in a long time.) So, go see MiamiCentral for yourself. You tell me if Brightline is one of our storylines to progress. “The Wizard of Oz” exhibit currently closes on June 16… unless it gets extended by popular demand.

Cheers !

Robert Munson

P.S. My second installment for “The Pre-Reauthorization Series” covers the Rail Passengers Association (RPA) and their annual event educating Congress, entitled “Blueprint 2020: Be The Architect.”  Their immediate task is to save the national rail network from the Trump DOT ax.  An impressively determined collection of citizens, RPA probably will save most routes. But reflecting the condition of rail advocacy, RPA’s vision and blueprint is less clear-cut than Brightline/Virgin. 

To suggest the difficulty of RPA’s task (and ours), consider my photo taken through the doors of Union Station. This is what Congress’ dome looked like with scaffolding on Veterans Day 2014 when masons were fixing its cracks. Back then, progress was hazy enough. Today…even more we need a clear story with good drama playing to American values if we are to change what happens under that dome if car-dependency is to have real alternatives. An effective group, RPA gives us insight into working those values.

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