High-speed rail has traditionally been a slow-moving infrastructure project in the United States, with various proposals, construction projects, and funding packages, inching along.
The soon-to-open Brightline, a private rail line beginning partial service between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach later this month, may showcase a new way to get track laid, and move high-speed transit forward. Aiming to eventually create a fast, convenient connection from Miami to Orlando, the system may offer a new model for other cities and states considering similar systems.
To be accurate, the Brightline isn’t technically high-speed, offering a top speed of 120 miles per hour and expected operating average of 80 mph, especially, compared to European and Asian systems. It bills itself as a “privately funded express inter-city passenger rail service.“ But as a rare rail construction success story at a time when other American high-speed systems remain mostly proposals and pipe dreams, it aims to prove that this kind of private infrastructure project can work.
According to NPR, the $3 billion (and rising) project, built by All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, promises to eventually cut the trip from West Palm Beach to Miami from two-and-a-half hours in rush hour to one. Running on tracks built alongside a 19th century rail line that still ferries cargo traffic, the Brightline will also feature mixed-use real estate developments at each station, a key point of difference from other public rail proposals, according to backers, which should help fund the system and keep it solvent.
The Miami station, known as MiamiCentral, projected to begin service early next year, will include a 50,000-square-foot food hall and 130,000 square feet of retail, and a number of transit-oriented developments in Fort Lauderdale are already promoting themselves as being near the new station. A total of 1.5 million square feet of mixed-use development are currently under construction in and around the system’s three stations.
"The research shows that the transportation service itself rarely makes a profit," John Renne, director of the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University, told NPR. "But when you combine the real estate and development opportunities with the transportation service, you can ... actually get to a very profitable outcome."
The rollout and construction, which has had a number of delays, hasn’t been entirely smooth. Despite plans to start operations within weeks, final schedules and pricing haven’t been released (previous reports estimated $16 for a Miami-to-West Palm ride, $10 more than riding the existing TriRail service).
Earlier, the project also faced lawsuits from local communities north of Miami, who felt it threatened safety and blocked traffic, as well as boaters, who were concerned train traffic on bridges would block boat traffic on waterways traversed by Brightline trains. Many of the lawsuits have been dropped, while communities such as Fort Lauderdale established a system to operate drawbridges that would work for all parties.
All Aboard Florida hopes the trains—sleek new Siemens cars with wifi—will provide a popular alternative to crowded roadways and fill a gap in the transportation market.
P. Michael Reininger, the executive director of Florida East Coast Industries, believes Brightline service can be an alternative for trips that are "too long to drive and too short to fly," and specifically said the company’s research suggested rail between city pairs 250-350 miles apart was feasible. As he noted during testimony to the House Travel & Infrastructure Railroad Subcommittee Hearing, half of Florida’s population of 20 million live near the proposed Miami-to-Orlando rail corridor, and connecting these two markets will be a boon to business and tourism, Brightline backers argue.
When trains begin ferrying passengers in a few weeks, a new transportation option in South Florida will finally be realized. Whether its financial model proves feasible for the long run, and other regions of the country, remains to be seen.