This piece of transit news could not come at a better time: Right when Miami’s traffic congestion is reaching peak awfulness during the winter tourist season, we learn that Tri-Rail commuter service to downtown is finally being launched. On Jan. 13, Tri-Rail trains began running from the Brightline train station downtown, MiamiCentral, to an existing Tri-Rail station in Hialeah.
As Raquel Regalado, a Miami-Dade County commissioner and Tri-Rail board member, told the Miami Herald: “The day has finally arrived. We have worked through many challenges.”
She’s sure right about that.
Residents have long needed need more transit options. This isn’t enough, but it will help. One white-knuckle drive along Interstate 95 or, worse, the Palmetto Expressway is enough to convince most people that we need more mass transit. Businesses know it, too: Long and lousy commutes to work erode our quality of life and make it harder to recruit workers. There’s only so much that our enviable weather can do to make up for an hour of sitting in traffic to get a dozen miles or so.
That makes the long-awaited news about Tri-Rail service so welcome. It’s tax-funded and significantly cheaper than Brightline, which runs farther east, along I-95, so it also helps those who can’t spring for a ticket that runs $24 or more, one way. Tri-Rail charges less than half that.
But “long-awaited” is key here. It’s tough to celebrate the announcement wholeheartedly, because the service is coming an incredible seven years later than planned. Yes, it was originally supposed to start in 2017.
And there was that little matter of the trains not fitting into the station a few years back. Remember that? It didn’t exactly speed up the timeline. That was in 2021, when residents learned that the platform Brightline built in its station for Tri-Rail trains wasn’t functional — trains coming into the station would clip their steps on the platform.
That set the whole project back, of course — and it had been delayed significantly already. A report called the too-wide platform a “serious construction defect,” which felt a bit like an understatement. Tri-Rail’s director, Steven Abrams, announced his resignation a couple of months later.
Back then, we were told the trains might start running at the end of 2022 after the platform problem was fixed. That estimate turned out to be about a year off, but the way things have been going, we feel lucky to get the trains now.
This still isn’t the one-seat ride that we were promised when this project was first pitched — at a hefty cost to local governments, who spent $43 million to help build Tri-Rail’s depot in the Brightline complex under a 2015 deal between Miami and Miami-Dade. The Brightline complex is being developed as a live/work hub.
Even with the new link, riders will have to change trains at one point on the trip. The one-seat ride from West Palm Beach to Miami is still in the offing, with plans to offer express trains on the route once Tri-Rail has a chance to assess passenger demand. We hope that’s soon.
Currently, Miami-Dade County Metrorail trains run the same route but the new “Downtown Link” for Tri-Rail will allow passengers a simpler transfer, from one Tri-Rail train to another. It’s not “one seat,” but it’s getting there.
The Miami Tri-Rail station also may have ramifications for more transit options later on. Having Tri-Rail run into downtown helps set up the train for a possible extension to the north, on the east side of I-95. Brightline, the for-profit train service, has been negotiating with the county to use its tracks for a county-funded commuter line between Miami and Aventura, with Tri-Rail as a possible operator of the line.
But that’s in the future. For now, let’s start with easier access to downtown by train. In a town where getting around has been so painful for so long, this is seriously good news.
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