Aventura Train Station Proposal Wins Approval From Miami-Dade Transit Oversight Board
A Miami-Dade County citizen transit oversight board has recommended the approval of a publicly-funded Virgin Trains station in Aventura despite lingering concerns the station could attract low ridership at high ticket fees.
The plan involves Miami-Dade’s purchasing a plot of land near Aventura Mall and building a $76.7 station with taxpayer funds. Virgin Trains, formerly Brightline, would cover the operating costs for the service between its existing Downtown Miami station and the new Aventura station.
The deal is a result of Virgin's ownership of the track along the Miami-Dade northeast corridor to Aventura. The county cannot create a rail service along the transitway without partnering with Virgin.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Alice Bravo, the county’s transit director, have said the deal for the Aventura station would give the county a new rail line to a congested area not served by Metrorail.
Members of the Miami-Dade Citizens’ Transportation Independent Trust (CITT) overwhelmingly supported the plan at a meeting Thursday night. But they remained concerned the cost of a round-trip ticket between Miami and Aventura would exceed any existing mass transit fares, possibly dissuading people from using the system.
“The concept is good,” said Javier Betancourt, the executive director of the CITT oversight board. “There is an opportunity for the [county] commission to address many of those lingering concerns.”
The transit board’s final decision on Thursday was a victory for Gimenez who’s trying to solidify a final transportation achievement before leaving office under term limit rules in 2020.
With the board's approval, the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners can approve the project with a simple majority vote. If CITT did not recommend it, the commission would need a two-thirds vote for approval.
The commissioners, who have final authority over the money that would be used for the station, will hold a special meeting Friday afternoon as part of an expedited review of the project, which has been public for less than three weeks.
Gimenez’s administration and CITT board members said the station is a step forward to finally bringing rail service to the northeast corridor. The $76.7 to build the station would also include a park-and-ride lot and pedestrian bridge connecting the terminal to nearby Aventura Mall.
“All we want to do is give people options,” Gimenez said on Sundial earlier this week. “We want to give you a different option of getting from Aventura to Downtown.”
County commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr., who said he supports the station proposal, added public-private partnerships are necessary to decrease congestion and “move our transportation system from the stagnation that it’s in right now.”
In a statement after the recommendation on Thursday, a spokesman for Virgin called the decision "a significant step in expanding Virgin Trains and adding mobility to the densely populated area of Aventura..." He said the expansion will take cars off the road and relieve congestion.
Despite recommending approval of the project, an analysis by the CITT board noted multiple concerns that it said should be addressed before the county commission approves the station.
The staff report said the proposal for the station provides a reduced Virgin Trains fare to Aventura at 65 percent of the cost of a usual ticket between Downtown Miami and Fort Lauderdale. But the average daily fare would still be about $9.75 for a one-way trip, far exceeding fares for any other form of mass transit.
“Fares will remain extraordinarily high and out of reach for most commuters, catering to upper income clientele,” the report said.
Betancourt said the county should negotiate lower prices with Virgin Trains. During Thursday's night meeting, Bravo said Miami-Dade planned to arrange a deal that would allow holders of county transit passes to also use them on Virgin trains.
A significant consideration in the review of the Aventura station has also been the future of Tri-Rail, the publicly-owned commuter rail line between Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County.
Miami-Dade and Tri-Rail have been seeking to use Virgin’s tracks along the northeast corridor to launch a new commuter rail line. Virgin has yet to agree to a deal.
The CITT report said Tri-Rail could potentially provide cheaper service and attract more ridership than Virgin along the corridor. Virgin is estimated to carry about a million passengers in 2019 while Tri-Rail carries about 4 million per year between Miami and West Palm Beach.
A Tri-Rail or similar commuter rail network would also include multiple stops along the corridor, Betancourt said. Virgin has not disclosed any plans to build more stations for its own trains between Miami and Aventura.
The report said Miami-Dade can use the pending deal with Virgin to pressure the company to negotiate an extension of Tri-Rail to the Aventura facility. The new station should be built in a way that’s accessible for Tri-Rail commuter trains, the analysis added.
“Right now, we’re bypassing a number of communities that do deserve service. North Miami, North Miami Beach, Upper East Side, the Midtown area,” Betancourt said of the Aventura station proposal. “We wanted to make sure that we tied our approval... to ultimately provide stations throughout the corridor and not just Aventura.”
This post was updated at 9:45 a.m. on October 11 to reflect Virgin Trains' reaction to the Miami-Dade Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust's approval of the Aventura station.