FL: Virgin Trains expands in Florida. Will it ever reach Jacksonville?

While the availability of a historic railroad corridor developed by Henry Flagler between Jacksonville and Miami may be the key asset to its establishment, serving Orlando may be the commodity that ultimately defines its success or failure.

The Florida Times-Union
A rendering of a Brightline/Virgin Trains USA train that currently connects Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
A rendering of a Brightline/Virgin Trains USA train that currently connects Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
Virgin Trains USA

As Michael Cegelis speaks at a recent Central Florida Transportation Planning Group meeting, the crowd inside the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority boardroom quietly listens. 

Soaking in what they came to hear, the executive vice president of infrastructure of Miami-based Virgin Trains USA provides highlights of the rail operator's most ambitious project to date, the construction of a $4 billion extension of the high-speed rail system that will connect South Florida with Orlando.

Considered to be the most innovative intercity passenger rail system in the country, Virgin operates a 67-mile rail system with trains traveling up to 79 miles per hour on 60-minute headways between Miami and West Palm Beach. Operating since January 2018, a record 244,000 passengers traveled on the train during the first quarter of 2019.

While the availability of a historic railroad corridor developed by Henry Flagler between Jacksonville and Miami may be the key asset to its establishment, serving Orlando may be the commodity that ultimately defines its success or failure. Following the debut of the Orlando link, the company expects revenue to stabilize by 2024 and for ridership to balloon to nearly 7 million annual riders by 2030. With the Orlando leg now well under construction, here is a look at where things are currently headed with the expansion of intercity passenger rail throughout Florida and why Jacksonville residents should care.

South Florida

Anchored by Virgin MiamiCentral, a massive station that includes office and residential towers, a modern food hall and two levels of retail space, Transit Oriented Development has successfully risen around all three original South Florida stations. Seeking to maximize ridership potential, Virgin now plans to open three additional South Florida stations by 2020.

In Boca Raton, a $10 million station with retail space, apartments and a 455-space parking garage would be within walking distance of the city's lifestyle center, Mizner Park.

At Aventura, Miami-Dade County has approved spending $76 million to construct a station to directly connect the rail line with Florida's largest and the country's third largest shopping mall by total square footage.

At PortMiami, a $15.4 million, 20,500 square-foot station would be built, allowing "train-to-port" packages that bundle in checked bags and parking for all 22 cruise lines, including a new 100,000 square foot cruise ship terminal that Virgin Voyages will open in November 2021.

Together, the three new South Florida stations could generate more than two million additional annual trips for the rail system. Other potential station sites being studied include Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport and Downtown Hollywood.

Orlando

Construction on the 170-mile extension between West Palm Beach and Orlando International Airport began in May 2019. Serving 24 million passengers annually, the airport is the state's largest and the country's 10th largest.

In Orlando, Virgin will tie into an Intermodal Transportation Facility that serves as the multimodal centerpiece of the airport's ambitious $2.15 billion South Terminal Complex. It is anticipated that rail operations would begin in 2022 and that 10,000 jobs will be created. Tickets from Miami to Orlando are expected to average $100 each way for trains traveling up to 125 miles per hour.

Additional stops could be added in Cocoa and the Treasure Coast. In Cocoa, the location is positioned close to Port Canaveral's cruise lines and aligned to allow for possible expansion to Jacksonville. According to Rusty Roberts, Virgin Trains vice president of government affairs, if the company adds a station in Martin County, it will likely be in Stuart.

Tampa

In late 2018, Virgin announced plans to construct a $1.7 billion extension to Tampa, primarily utilizing the right-of-way of Interstate 4. Upon completion, Virgin would be accessible to 70 percent of the state's 21 million residents.

A deadline to finalize a right-of-way agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation and the Central Florida Expressway Authority was extended for the fourth time to Jan. 1, 2020. Initially anticipated to be completed in 2021, deadline extensions could delay the original project timeline.

Desiring to take advantage of a $70 billion tourism market that attracted a record 75 million visitors last year, a Tampa extension could also double down as an airport connector for Orlando's SunRail commuter rail line and include additional stops near area theme parks. A link with SunRail would be beneficial with both rail systems, by creating a direct airport rail connection for Central Florida residents.

Lakeland

In Central Florida, 18,924 passengers went through a station relocated in 1997 to Downtown Lakeland for the simple purpose of spurring business in the heart of the city and providing existing passenger rail riders with a more convenient location. Today, that decision is paying economic dividends.

A 300-unit apartment complex is proposed directly to the north of the train station. To the east, a food hall featuring two Northeast Florida businesses, The Hyppo and May Day Ice Cream, were set to open in November. They'll be joined by an eight-story Class A office building just to the west of the station that will create 500 high-wage jobs.

Of interesting note, the deal to bring Amtrak to downtown Lakeland wasn't led by the local transit agency. It was negotiated by Lakeland Downtown Development Authority executive director Jim Edwards. The name may sound familiar for those who follow local downtown development news. Edwards, who played key roles with the rebirth of downtowns in Lakeland, Hollywood and Charleston, W.V., was an original finalist who lost out to Aundra Wallace for the DIA CEO position in 2013.

Jacksonville

For the time being, Virgin doesn't plan to expand to Jacksonville. However, the city is on the rail company's radar. In 2014, the rail carrier secured passenger rail easement rights on the Florida East Coast Railway for an extension into Jacksonville and access to tourist destinations like Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.

In the meantime, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority continues to move forward with the construction of the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center. When complete by the end of March 2020, the $59 million transportation center will feature improved connectivity between intercity bus, local bus, JTA Flyer bus rapid transit and JTA Skyway services. A future phase will include Amtrak, commuter rail and additional intercity rail services such as Virgin. However, JTA is not actively engaged in talks with Virgin or Amtrak on the possibility of bringing intercity passenger rail back to downtown.

According to JTA spokesman David Cawton, "As ridership, connectivity, economic development and population increases, this will give us the justification to ask for the means to add passenger rail to Downtown Jacksonville in the future. But we cannot set a timeline, and begin discussions with Amtrak (or anyone else), without setting the platform for ridership."

History suggests that setting a platform for ridership should not be an obstacle. Jacksonville is a city that loves to study but generally falls short on implementation. The discussion to bring rail back Downtown dates as far back as 1993 when former Mayor Ed Austin assembled a citizens committee to explore bringing Amtrak back to Downtown. That initiative 26 years ago is what has materialized as the Regional Transportation Center.

Amtrak currently operates two trains, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star through Jacksonville. In fiscal year 2018, the Jacksonville station off New Kings Road was used by 66,471 passengers.

During a 2011 interview with the Florida Times-Union, Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds went as far as to state that the passenger rail company wants to move Downtown, but that it needed assurances from JTA that the Prime Osborn could handle the trains and that JTA has the funding necessary to support a regional transportation facility. At the time, the passenger rail portion of the Regional Transportation Center had been placed on hold due to the project's $146 million price tag, with as much as one-third of the costs being budgeted for the need to upgrade railroad infrastructure.

In an August 2018 Jacksonville Business Journal interview, JTA CEO Nat Ford suggested that a Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grant from the Federal Railroad Administration would open the door for passenger rail to come back to the Prime Osborn.

According to Cawton, the project "works to alleviate a single point of congestion for freight movement, thus allowing for increased productivity and modern controls to improve safety. Without these improvements, any additional rail services like commuter/passenger rail will not be possible."

In June 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that Jacksonville would receive up to $17.6 million through the Consolidated Rail program. A result of a successful collaboration between JTA, the city of Jacksonville, the FDOT, Florida East Coast Railway and CSX, the project will modernize rail switches, construct staging track and upgrade rail communications technology to reduce congestion of rail and automobile traffic through Downtown and San Marco.

In a city starved for Downtown development, the clear economic and multimodal benefits of rail-based infrastructure investments that cities across Florida are enjoying should not be ignored locally.

With the Regional Transportation Center nearing completion, Virgin's continued expansion, Amtrak's desire for relocation and financial obstacles possibly being alleviated, now is the time to get serious about restoring passenger rail service at the Prime Osborn, the former Union Terminal

As mentioned by Neal Payton, an Urban Land Institute panel expert commissioned by JTA at a 2018 public forum, a Downtown train station is a "game changer."

The game has already changed in other Florida cities. It's time for Jacksonville.

ENNIS DAVIS is a graduate of Florida A&M University, a certified senior planner with Alfred Benesch and Company, a trustee for the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, chair of the American Planning Association Florida Chapter's First Coast Section and Groundwork Jacksonville board member.

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