Tuesday June 2, 2020
The Board of County Commissioners is voting on whether to proceed with negotiations with Virgin Trains to operate commuter rail service on the Northeast Corridor.
However, as the memorandum is intended to set a framework for the negotiations, it contains several provisions that warrant caution and concern for transit riders and taxpayers.
It is crucial that the County starts in a stronger position before entering negotiations.
A Bad Deal for Taxpayers and Transit Riders:
Yearly Access Fees, Capital Costs, a nd Potential Private Subsidies
Although Virgin Trains will undertake some capital expenditures, they are eclipsed by the substantial burden on yearly public dollars for all other expenditures and outweighed by future capital improvements essential to the usefulness of the service.
The memorandum is also architected so that the County does not have any ownership or revenue stake in the stations, while it remains responsible for the majority of capital expenditures required to operate a truly useful service. Furthermore, it is generally unclear who will own the maintenance facilities and the parking lots.
Stations are the major source of revenue due to passenger traffic and their potential for development. The County is stuck subsidizing transit commuters on tracks they do not own and have to pay for (unlike Metrorail, which they own) – with no direct stake in the revenue or development from the stations, and an obligation to continue paying for track access.
It is also unclear whether the capital investments the County is making in “rail infrastructure” inPhase 3 for Commuter Rail also benefits private for-profit freight and express rail services operated by FECR and Virgin Trains.
Further study is urgently warranted of public-private rail systems and their cost, ownership and operating structures that lead to fairer outcomes for the taxpayer.
No Competitive Service Frequency
The frequencies for the first two phases are not competitive, and the third phase requires significant county investment. Not only does poor frequency alienate potential riders, it creates the conditions under which transit fails further jeopardizing the taxpayer's investment.
It gets worse if you aren’t actually traveling all the way from Downtown to Aventura, and only an intermediate station, which makes travel times even less competitive due to poor frequency.
The memorandum also suggests that private for-profit express rail service would have priority over this service, which already has to compete with freight service, leading to potential delays.
No Framework or Process for Station Location Decisions
Although the memorandum identifies station areas between Miami Central and Aventura that are generally in line with prior studies, it does not specify or require a clear framework or process to establish a station location, and does not cite any prior analysis or studies.
Deviations from these locations require transparent justification, a rebuttal of previous analyses, and demonstrations that any revised location increases access to opportunity and service.
Miami-Dade County has a history of poor transit placement that is not aligned with high density, easy pedestrian access, and interconnectivity with the broader system. This makes any new corridor that does not make station decisions in the interest of serving transit riders (not real estate developers or political agendas) destined to underperform and become an unsustainable allocation for taxpayers.
No Provisions for Fair Fares and Tri-Rail Access
While the memorandum offers many details on how much money taxpayers will be liable for in rent, operations, construction costs and more – it does not describe any baseline requirements or expectations of how much the commuter rail service would actually cost to use in fares.
Additionally, current Brightline service (which is currently suspended) is cost-prohibitive to regular commuters and is not in line with standard daily commuter rates. While Tri-Rail (which has continued to operate) can provide a more cost-effective service at lower fares, the memorandum does not provide for the service to be considered in any way during negotiations, which could lock out Tri-Rail on this corridor for up to 90 years.
No Clarity on Federal Relief Stimulus Funding
The memorandum states that the County can fund Phase 3 of this project (which is essential to provide useful service at 20-minute all-day headways) with Federal Stimulus dollars.
However, given how essential Phase 3 is to the success of this corridor, and that there are no firm details on the timing, amounts and criteria of federal stimulus funding, a memorandum that does not clearly outline how this phase will be funded at the outset jeopardizes the success of the corridor – considering that many other transportation projects that may also compete for stimulus dollars.
Disclaimer: Although the analysis presented by Transit Alliance has been produced from sources believed to be reliable and attempts to clearly represent source documents, Transit Alliance makes no warranty or claims as to the accuracy of said data or the resulting analysis,especially as we are limited by documents that are publicly available.
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