Monday, September 25, 2023

Brightline: Is Boca on Board?

Pardon the pun, but there’s no other way to put it: Boca Raton has put a Brightline station on the fast track.

Mayor Scott Singer and city council members took pains Monday to say that nothing is final, no vote is coming soon, and much negotiating lies ahead. But all expressed strong support for striking a deal with Virgin Trains USA, which operates the Brightline service.

Virgin also is eager. Vice President Richard Kronberg said the company wants to open the Boca Raton station by the end of 2020. Virgin Trains clearly knew what the outcome Monday would be. Immediately after the meeting, the company distributed a news release saying, “Today marks the first step in a formal process.”

Council members displayed their eagerness despite a striking lack of details from Virgin Trains Vice President Brian Kronberg, given what he’s asking. The company wants the city to donate the land east of the downtown library—amounting to perhaps five acres—and build a parking garage, but Kronberg didn’t say how big the garage would be. The company also wants the 0.75-acre city-owned parcel south of the library, but Kronberg wouldn’t say why Virgin Trains wants it. The company—through a partner—will put residential and other development on the library land, but Kronberg wouldn’t say how much.

Here’s why Virgin wants Boca Raton now.

The company based its original business model on stations in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami and advertising high-speed service between them and to Orlando. That model isn’t working. Though the company notes that the Orlando station won’t open until 2022, ridership for 2018 was half of projections.

Groundbreaking of the Orlando Virgin Trains Brightline station

So last November, the parent company, Fortress Investment Group, allowed Sir Richard Branson to buy a minority interest in Brightline and rebranded the company. Branson operates airlines and trains under the Virgin name.

And as Virgin Trains told financial regulators, the trains need more riders. The company also has talked about stops at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and in Hollywood and Aventura. Kronberg said Monday that Virgin wants to build a station on the Treasure Coast, perhaps to calm strong opposition to the trains in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties. More stops, of course, turn high-speed rail into higher-speed rail with no corresponding drop in ticket prices.

From the start, however, Brightline also has been a real estate play. A 290-unit residential project shares the parking garage at the West Palm Beach station. The Miami station is part of a multi-billion mixed-use complex. The obvious market is regular Brightline riders.

One can see that city-owned land on Southwest Fourth Street across from the library as the wedge for Virgin and a partner to acquire the other six parcels in that block. The city owns one. At least one of the other five property owners was at Monday’s meeting. I’m told that inquiries are being made about those properties.

That block comprises about three acres. Like the library site, none of the properties is zoned for residential development. Brightline wants the city to “properly” rezone the library site for the company’s “uses.”

So as negotiations begin, does Boca Raton need Brightline? Or does Brightline need the city? The question matters because Brightline is asking for land that would be worth many millions if zoned for highest and best use. Industry estimates are that parking garages cost at least $20,000 per space. A 600-space garage thus would cost at least $12 million.

Virgin also wants the city to build a pedestrian bridge over Dixie Highway—cost unknown—and to pay for a shuttle service between the station and “various locations within Boca Raton.” According to an unrelated presentation on Monday, a downtown, fixed-point shuttle alone could cost as much as $600,000 a year.

A Brightline train passes the Miami Design District

Here’s why the station might work for Boca Raton:

Location: The bridge and the shuttle would link the station to downtown and could attract more visitors to Mizner Park. Joanna Kaye, director of Festival of The Arts Boca, said the station would be a “coup.”

In addition, the city wants to create a new downtown government campus. Putting the station near City Hall could catalyze that effort.

Economic development: The station could help existing companies attract employees who want to take transit to work and aren’t served by Tri-Rail. It could draw companies to the area around the station.

Timing: By the spring of 2022 there will be toll lanes on I-95 as far north as Glades Road. Driving south at rush hour will look even less attractive.

Here’s why the station might not work:

Location: The garage would adjoin Library Commons to the north. As one resident of that community noted Monday, Boca Raton’s would be the only Brightline station in a mostly residential neighborhood.

All along, the city has envisioned that the land east of the library as a transit site. But the talk was of a smaller commuter rail station with no development. The station couldn’t be farther south because trains would block the Palmetto Park Road crossing even when not moving.

Then there’s the library itself. The garage would displace all parking spaces. Kronberg said the garage would include an equal number of spaces for library patrons, all on the ground floor—to make access as easy as possible. Virgin Trains, however, wants to operate the garage. And what about all that new traffic around the library to the station?

Ridership: Many speakers Monday said they would use the train. Only a couple, however, said they would use it regularly.

Kronberg didn’t say how what tickets would cost. At the moment, though, a round-trip ticket from Fort Lauderdale to Miami or West Palm Beach at commuter hours costs $44. That’s $220 per week, and that’s the cheaper option.

Company representatives said ridership has improved since the opening of the Miami station. Brightline also continues to offer some discounted fares.

Is there a sustainable market for Brightline in Boca Raton? Again Monday, someone described the service as a “game-changer.” If that were true, however, Brightline wouldn’t be asking Boca Raton for a station, because the original model would be working.

Political hypocrisy: Everyone gushed about how the station would promote “sustainability” by getting cars off the road. Eighteen months ago, however, the council rejected a plan for Midtown redevelopment that would have featured the same kind of sustainable “transit-oriented” development and a second Tri-Rail station.

Midtown, of course, is 300 acres. The development principles, however, are the same. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke led the fight against Midtown and the Tri-Rail station, which has resulted in lawsuits against the city. On Monday, however, O’Rourke said, “From everything I’ve heard, most people are excited about this.”

One speaker said that if Brightline comes through Boca Raton anyway, why not have it stop? Such sentiment misses the point. Brightline comes through Boca Raton at only the cost of occasional traffic delays and noise. Having Brightline stop would come at a high and ongoing cost.

I asked why the council members asked so few questions. The collective reply was that it’s early. The council must determine—after cold-eyed analysis—whether Boca Raton should give what Brightline wants.

Beach & Park seeking answers on Boca National

Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District officials went before the city council Monday, once again seeking some decisions on the Boca National golf course. Once again, they didn’t get any.

District commissioners most wanted the council to agree on the course design. They also hoped that council members would settle on how the city would contribute toward construction of the course.

Mayor Scott Singer did allow that he’d commit $10 million. But that seemed to come from the city assuming the projected $9.5 million for construction of Phase 2 at the de Hoernle athletic complex on Spanish River Boulevard. Commissioner Bob Rollins said the city’s proposal wouldn’t help with paying for the course because the de Hoernle project is three years away and the district hadn’t even included the project in its capital budget.

In addition, the district acknowledged that the course would cost the originally projected $28 million, bringing the total cost—with land purchase—to $52 million.

After the council balked at that estimate from designer Price Fazio, the district cut the price to $20 million and asked the council to pay all of it. The $8 million in “savings,” however, comes from delaying a tunnel under Northwest Second Avenue to connect the west and east sides of the layout, a permanent clubhouse and a training facility. The tunnel is to keep golfers safe.

Even council members acknowledged that the course would need those projects. That unstated acknowledgment was that the city might pay for them.

ocean breeze

A golf professional who teaches at county-owned Osprey Point said the $28 million figure is reasonable, because of the site—the former Ocean Breeze course at Boca Teeca. He said a comparison to the much cheaper municipal course in the Orlando Park suburb of Winter Park was not valid because that design was “easy.” Councilman Andy Thomson wants Winter Park representatives to discuss their course with the council.

There also remains the district’s wish to control management of the course. Councilman Jeremy Rodgers said he was not prepared to vote on any Boca National matter until city staff had reviewed new information from the National Golf Association related to greens fee and potential for use.

Still, the Monday discussion did feature Craig Ehrnst speaking directly to the council on behalf of the district. Other district commissioners and the interim executive director were in the audience. They wanted a decision on money because the district must set its tax rate for next year now and approve its budget by September.

“I think we at least got a little more understanding of each other,” Rollins said. The district and council, though, still are mostly talking past each other. Ehrnst wondered why the city couldn’t just allocate $20 million from the sale of the current municipal course. Deputy City Manager George Brown reminded Ehrnst that there is no money because the sale hasn’t closed and may not for some time.

Ehrnst also suggested that the city could borrow the money. Brown responded that the city thus would not be able to borrow for other projects and could jeopardize its highest-level bond rating. “How important is a Triple-A bond rating” Ehrnst asked. Bad move. The city cherishes that status.

Council members tried to be diplomatic. Singer pointed out, though, that the city waited for a year to get Ocean Breeze numbers. The unspoken message was that the district’s financial urgency on Boca National is the district’s problem.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
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.

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