Brightline, city attorney and Garlic Fest updates

brightlinetrains.jpg

All Aboard coming aboard

Residents of Boca Raton and Delray Beach now can see that Brightline is coming.

Brightline is the passenger train service that is scheduled to begin operating in mid-2017 between Miami and West Palm Beach. Eventually, the company plans to expand service to Orlando. Thirty-two trains—16 each way—will run on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

For that to happen, the company must install a second track, as happened on the CSX corridor to accommodate the Tri-Rail commuter line. You can see the double-

tracking work all along the line in Boca and Delray. Even if the work appears to be complete, however, it may not be. Once the rails are positioned, they must be threaded.

With the double-tracking are coming upgrades at grade crossings. When complete, the upgrades will prevent drivers from crossing when the gates are down. Engineers thus won’t have to blow their horns, creating what planners call a “quiet zone” between West Palm Beach and Miami.

The work will require closings. The crossing at Hidden Valley Boulevard in northern Boca was closed from last Friday until Monday. The crossing at Atlantic Avenue in downtown Delray Beach will be closed from Sunday until Thursday. Other closings this month will be Northwest 28th Street and Northeast Second Street in Boca Raton and Southeast Second Street in Delray Beach. More closings in both cities will come in August.

A spokeswoman for All Aboard Florida, Brightline’s parent company, said 60 percent of the double-tracking and grade-crossing work between Miami and West Palm Beach is complete. There are 12 crossings in Delray and 10 in Boca. The spokeswoman said All Aboard Florida expects to finish the work in “a few months.”

The company has to obtain permits from cities for work at each crossing, which means that both sides must approve agreements for each project. According to a Boca Raton spokeswoman, coordination is now happening more quickly. The cities want to make sure that residents have as much notice as possible.

All Aboard Florida is paying to upgrade the crossings. The spokeswoman notes that under current agreements between the rail owner—Florida East Coast Industries— and the cities, the cities would be financing the improvements. Cities will pay to maintain the crossings. That’s a fair deal, given the complaints Boca and Delray officials have heard from residents about the new, louder horns on freight trains that will be silent once the company finishes the upgrades.

Obviously, cities also will have to deal with 32 more train crossings and gate closings each day, though the closings likely won’t last more than a minute. The main opposition to Brightline has come from north of West Palm Beach, where residents see only hassle from the service, not benefits. In this area, though, there is optimism that Brightline will bring a very big benefit. Here’s an update:

Brightline benefits

That benefit is commuter rail on the FEC, which the double tracking will allow. Planners wanted to begin Tri-Rail in the eastern corridor when the service began in 1989, but the FEC then was uninterested.

Tri-Rail has been reasonably successful—the Boca Raton station is the busiest on the Miami-Mangonia Park network—but many stations are too far from large employers and/or don’t have adequate shuttle bus service. Again, Boca is an exception. Employers even help pay for the service to and from the Yamato Road station.

The FEC line, however, goes through historic downtowns in West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and cities to the south. It goes through Boca Raton’s new, developing downtown. South Florida’s many urban condos and apartments have created a new market for mass transit. That appeal likely will grow once the Florida Department of Transportation extends toll lanes on Interstate 95 north through Broward County and to Linton Boulevard.

Palm Beach County Commissioner and former Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams chairs the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates Tri-Rail. The project to start a second commuter line is called the Coastal Link. It would run between Miami and Jupiter. Abrams told me that the agency and Florida East Coast Industries “want it to happen,” which will mean overcoming “obstacles.”

Happily, the parties have overcome one obstacle. Agreements finalized this year will enable Tri-Rail to connect with Brightline’s station in Miami. Seven groups had to approve that $70 million deal.

The service also will require two crossovers—in Pompano Beach and West Palm Beach—between the CSX and FEC tracks. Past West Palm Beach, the CSX tracks run to the northwest. Abrams said money for both has been designated through a federal grant.

One major obstacle, Abrams said, is the New River Bridge in Fort Lauderdale. It doesn’t have the capacity for the new service. Critics of Brightline also say the new bridge closings for the 32 trains will harm Fort Lauderdale’s high-end yacht industry. The bridge’s normal position is raised. There must be a new bridge.

The other big challenge, of course, is money. Abrams said cars actually are the easiest to finance. The big-ticket items would be operations and maintenance. Tri-Rail also would have to pay what Abrams calls “an access fee” to use the tracks, as it pays to use the CSX tracks.

For now, plans are for 28 stations on the Coastal Link. The tentative location in Boca Raton is Northeast Second Street near the downtown library. That site is a quick walk from City Hall, Mizner Park and other downtown points, though building there might displace the community garden east of the library.

Not surprisingly, planners envision the Delray Beach station to be near Atlantic Avenue. Neither city has done any formal study on a station site, though officials in both cities support the Coastal Link. Abrams said the expectation is that cities “would help pay” for the stations.

Despite those obstacles, the sentiment is that the Coastal Link will happen, perhaps by 2020 for the whole system with service between Miami and northern Dade County starting sooner. So when you see those new sections of rail, know that the work could be part of a profound change in how we get around.

CRA and city project sharing

Before tonight’s Delray Beach City Commission meeting, the commission will hold another in its series of meetings with the Community Redevelopment Agency. The topic at the 4:30 p.m. workshop again will be how much money the CRA can contribute toward projects in the city’s next budget and the city’s capital improvement plan.

City Manager Don Cooper said in an email, “We will be discussing the CRA sharing (their portion) of a very extensive (capital improvement plan) which will occur over multiple years. . .” Last week, I reported that the plan comes to $250 million over 12 years. Cooper said the amount is correct, but that the work could last longer, given the city’s big backlog.

Cooper also said, “The discussion may focus on the request (from the city) to fund the tennis tournament.” As Cooper notes, that would be “a major change from previous requests.” I don’t know if this one will happen, but the commission continues to push for major changes in the financial relationship between the city and the CRA.

City attorney

At its regular meeting, the Delray commission probably will approve the proposal for firms and individuals seeking to be city attorney. Based on last week’s discussion the proposal will state a preference for firms that have an office in Palm Beach County or will have one when the firm starts work. The deadline for applications will be Sept. 9.

To judge from that discussion, the commission remains divided on whether to hire a firm or try again to hire an individual. Mayor Carey Glickstein and Commissioner Jordana Jarjura, both lawyers, remain skeptical that a firm could provide quality work for the same price or better. Glickstein said such a hybrid approach —the city has three lawyers on staff, and openings for the top job and another assistant—remains “a steep climb for me.” Mitch Katz and Shelly Petrolia remain more open to hiring a firm. The commission’s third lawyer, Al Jacquet, may be the swing vote. If he shows up.

New home fro Garlic Fest

Two days after telling the Delray Beach City Commission that she would not seek to hold Garlic Fest downtown next February, Nancy Stewart-Franczak announced that Garlic Fest would move to John Prince Park west of Lake Worth. The dates will be the same as Stewart-Franczak wanted in Delray: Feb.10-12.

As breakups go, it doesn’t rise to the level of Dwyane Wade leaving the Miami Heat for the Chicago Bulls, but it may come to represent a milestone for Delray Beach.

Garlic Fest is moving because the commission believed that Delray Beach has become successful enough to say no, even if that risked losing a popular event. Garlic Fest could have asked for a different date, but Stewart-Franczak chose not to do so.

City Manager Don Cooper said in an email, “We tried working with (Festival Management Group) to find a suitable location on Congress (Avenue) and other areas within the city.” Delray wants to encourage redevelopment of Congress. But organizers and property owners couldn’t work out a deal.

At least week’s meeting, the commission heard from a man who said he has been a vendor at Garlic Fest. Cancellation of the event would mean losing 10 percent of his income. The man, however, lives in Loxahatchee. The commission asked for a stricter special events policy on behalf of those who live in Delray Beach and believe that festivals have squeezed them out.

Nor do commissioners or administrators have to apologize for Delray “losing” Garlic Fest. The city included Stewart-Franczak in discussions of the new policy. Commissioner Jordana Jarjura tried to give Stewart-Franczak a one-time exception to the new policy so she could hold Garlic Fest downtown next February. Stewart-Franczak didn’t reciprocate to what Commissioner Shelly Petrolia called “olive branch after olive branch.”

For all the rancor, this breakup could work out. Delray Beach could gain more control of downtown during event season, and Garlic Fest could thrive at a new location. Endings can lead to beginnings.

Previous articleThe Week Ahead: July 12 to 18
Next articleSummer Libations and more
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.