All aboard? Miami-Dade to start discussions with Virgin Trains over major expansion

Commissioners objected to proposed $350M cost to the county

Virgin Trains (Credit: iStock)
Virgin Trains (Credit: iStock)

Miami-Dade moved forward with a proposal that could allow for a major expansion of Virgin Trains — but the funding is not yet on track.

The Miami-Dade County Commission passed an amended resolution on Tuesday that gives Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez the authority to negotiate a proposal for the expansion and report back in 90 days.

But the resolution bears nearly no resemblance to the original item on the commission’s agenda, put forth by commissioner Sally Heyman. Commissioners objected to the county’s financial obligations outlined by Virgin Trains in its proposal. As originally proposed, Virgin Trains USA was seeking $350 million from the county to build up to five train platforms between downtown Miami and Aventura, as well as related infrastructure that would be required.

“We don’t want to joint venture with these folks. These folks are bleeding money,” said commissioner Xavier Suarez, adding that doing so would give “them the wrong impression.”

Gimenez also warned of the impact that Covid-19 could have on demand for mass transit.

“We really need to think about what is the future of transit and how people will get around this town…,” he said. “We may have as many of 20 to 30 percent of people working out of their homes.”

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The proposed stations would be in Wynwood/Midtown, the Miami Design District, Upper Eastside/El Portal, North Miami and Florida International University/Biscayne Boulevard corridor.

Brightline, as the train service that runs from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach is currently called, shut down in late March due to the coronavirus pandemic and laid off at least 250 employees. The company is a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, which is backed by the private equity firm Fortress Investment Group.

The expansion would be part of the county’s Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) transportation plan.

Virgin Trains proposed funding about $75 million, in addition to receiving a development fee and annual rent starting at $29 million a year, which commissioners balked at.

At the end of 2018, Brightline announced that Virgin Group made a minority investment in the company and would be providing rights to rename the system Virgin Trains USA. The rebranding from Brightline to Virgin Trains is ongoing, with completion expected by mid-2020.

Brightline has spurred major office, retail and residential development near its stations, but has struggled with ridership. The rail service is planning to expand to Orlando, as well as make additional stops in Aventura and Boca Raton.

In March, the company said that the suspension of service has not affected construction of its planned Orlando rail line.