Discussion about a Brightline station in Boca Raton took nearly six hours Tuesday night, but the outcome was never in doubt.
Just before midnight, the city council voted unanimously to lease almost two acres of city land east of the Downtown Library for the station and a parking garage. You would have thought that IBM had just announced the return of those 10,000 jobs the city once had.
Mayor Scott Singer called it “a moment of triumph for Boca Raton.” Before the first hour of discussion had ended, three people had called the station “a game-changer” or “game-changing.” A county tourism official compared the station to “winning the lottery.” Singer told Library Commons residents, who aren’t happy about having the garage as a neighbor, to “look at the greater good.”
That “greater good” supposedly is making Boca Raton part of what will be the Virgin Trains USA (VTUSA) statewide transportation network. If the company’s grand plans materialize, VTUSA will provide passenger service from Miami to Orlando and on to Tampa.
The question before the council was simple, but hard to answer: Will joining that network be worth at least $12 million to Boca Raton? That’s the tangible cost of the city’s share of the parking garage.
Then there’s the public land. Add the potential cost of street and sidewalk improvements around the station. VTUSA says the trains will keep cars off Interstate 95, but the station will bring more cars to the library. A traffic study will determine whether those improvements are necessary. Deputy City Manager George Brown said the cost—and who would pay it—are “unknown.”
In addition, there’s the potential intangible cost—in disruption—to one of Boca Raton’s most popular public places. Though the library will have the same number of parking spaces after the station and garage are built, the estimated nine-month construction will force some library patrons to park across the street. Though Boca Raton always envisioned a transit stop east of the library, the city didn’t envision a project the size of what VTUSA will bring. Early voting will shift to the Spanish River Library, four miles away.
So despite assurances from Singer and others, the Brightline project is a risk. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke said the station will “take cars off the road” and promote sustainability. Not if ridership projections don’t pan out. There’s also no way to tell whether the station will reduce overall traffic within the city.
O’Rourke wants to emphasize “connectivity”—linking the station with downtown. But there is no plan. Brown said it could cost as much as $12 million to build a pedestrian bridge to Mizner Park and cause “brain damage” trying to get permission from public and private parties without inviting a lawsuit for devaluating private property.
Because the VTUSA question was about economics, opponents of the station did themselves no favors by making off-point, sometimes hysterical arguments.
One regular speaker claimed that fumes from the garage would endanger public health. City Manager Leif Ahnell noted that roughly two dozen residential complexes in Boca Raton sit atop garages. Guests at Via Mizner’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel and owners of the accompanying high-end condos will be on top of garages.
Another speaker said the $12 million would come from “the magic tree.” In fact, it will come from the city’s ample reserves. Others argued that the city was rushing the project and had failed to notify residents that a decision was looming. Though the project definitely became a council priority, discussion began five months ago. Council members postponed the final vote from Thanksgiving week. Anyone who didn’t know what was happening on Tuesday hadn’t been paying attention.
The legitimate issue is VTUSA’s finances. Speakers noted that the company cancelled a planned initial public offering 10 months ago. VTUSA said the company had found “alternative financing” to remain private.
That financing was another $950 million from the Florida Development Finance Corp., which issues publicly backed bonds for economic development. VTUSA now has borrowed $2.7 billion from that fund, after initially claiming that all financing would be private.
Company officials make a fair point when they state that it will be hard to assess Brightline’s long-term prospects until the Orlando station opens in 2022. Vice President Jose Gonzalez said Tuesday that if the company hadn’t faced multiple lawsuits from Indian River County, the Orlando stop already would be open. The county attorney came Tuesday to speak against the station.
Given that uncertainty, Boca Raton asked for language in the lease that would allow the city to take the station and garage, both of which VTUSA will own, and not just if the company declares bankruptcy. The city also could act if fewer than five trains stop at the station over three consecutive six-month periods.
In the worst case, Councilman Andy Thomson said, “We get the parking garage and a nice train station that we can repurpose. We have solid protections in place in the event VTUSA doesn’t succeed.”
Though the company must start work by the end of 2021, VTUSA representatives have said that they would like to open the station by the end of next year. Up next will be city approval of the site plan, as would happen with any development project, and a plan for temporary parking at the library.
Singer said he had received “a record number of cards” from people who wanted to speak. Indeed, Brightline has received far more attention than deliberations about a new golf course on which the city may spend considerably more than $12 million.
Now it’s time to find out if that investment has bought Boca Raton a “game-changer.”
Boca Teeca weighs in
Speaking of that golf course, two residents of Boca Teeca spoke Tuesday night. The new course would replace the former Ocean Breeze course at Boca Teeca.
Those residents objected to the condition in the VTUSA lease under which the company will help the city’s efforts to create a grade crossing at Jeffrey Street on the Florida East Coast Railway track. Residents in Boca Raton’s north end then could have access to the west.
Boca Teeca has fought that connectivity for decades. City officials acknowledge privately that Boca Raton made a mistake by placating the community.
The new course would raise property values within Boca Teeca. It would amount to a bailout, since Boca Teeca couldn’t support Ocean Breeze. With this big favor looming, Boca Teeca might want to back off this complaint about the Jeffrey Street crossing.
Florida Atlantic University will play Southern Methodist University in the Dec. 21 Boca Raton Bowl. It’s the second time in three years that the Owls have played in the hometown event.
It will be the first Saturday date for the game and the first appearance on ABC Television. It’s also the last game in the six-year deal that brought postseason college football to Boca Raton. ESPN, which is a sister network of ABC— Disney owns them—has packaged and promoted the event through an agreement with the city and Palm Beach County and another with FAU for use of the stadium.
Though there is no deal yet to extend the game, ESPN’s Doug Mosley said in an email that he is “confident of a six-year renewal. ESPN also has to renew agreements with the conferences whose teams play in the game: Conference USA—to which FAU belongs—the American Athletic Conference and the Mid-American Conference.
Then there’s a deal for a corporate name sponsor. Currently, it’s Cheribundi Tart Cherry, which is in the final year of its three-year deal.
“I don’t know that I have a definite timeframe in mind,” Mosley said, “but that’s because I feel good about where we stand with everyone. We’ll have all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed soon.”
Palmetto Park widening comes up again
More than a decade ago, Boca Raton pushed back against the county’s plan to widen Palmetto Park Road. The city is pushing back again.
Once the chambers had nearly emptied early Wednesday morning after the Brightline vote, drowsy council members discussed the county’s long-term— through 2045—transportation plan. The city’s traffic engineer noted that some of the projects in Boca Raton conflicted with the city’s own comprehensive plan.
Two projects concern Palmetto Park Road. One would widen it from six lanes to eight lanes between Military Trail and Southwest 12th Avenue. Another would widen it from four lanes to six lanes between 12th Avenue and Southwest Third Avenue.
Not surprisingly, council members disagree. They plan to take up the issue at today’s meeting of the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, which sets those priorities. I’ll have an update after the meeting.
Delray Mayor meets her Match (Point)
Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia isn’t afraid to criticize city commissioners in public. It happened again on Nov. 21, when the commission approved a settlement of the Match Point lawsuit.
Petrolia and the commissioners emerged from a closed-door session at which they voted on the settlement. You could tell that Petrolia was mad when she tersely asked City Attorney Lynn Gelin to summarize the deal.
Under the settlement, Gelin noted, Delray Beach’s costs toward the annual pro tennis event—which Match Point promotes and operates—no longer would go up each year. They will stay the same until the contract ends with the 2030 tournament. Match Point also will give the city more exposure during the broadcast of the event. Each side will pay its own legal fees.
Petrolia was on the commission that sued Match Point, claiming that the award of the contract in 2005 violated city rules that require competitive bidding. Failing to resolve that question, Petrolia said, “sets a terrible precedent” that other companies could exploit at the city’s expense. She clearly believed that the city could have won in court.
Ryan Boylston spoke for the commissioners, all of whom voted for the settlement. He called it a “big win” that would keep the event in Delray Beach and save the city “millions” over the next 11 years.
After the vote, Petrolia quickly ended the meeting and stalked from the dais.