I-95 misery has bent Henry Flagler's railroad tracks full circle.
Long ago, passenger trains on lines Flagler built turned a community called Fort Dallas, pop. 300, into Miami. Then cars on I-95 turned Miami into the Miami metropolitan area, driving a stake into Flagler passenger trains along the way. Now, in a historic swing of the pendulum, that same highway system may be resurrecting Flagler passenger service.
All Aboard Florida and Tri-Rail Coastal Link -- one private and one public project -- each plan to carry people along the Florida East Coast rails for the first time in almost 50 years. The catalyst: highway congestion.
“We’re at a moment in time where our population is continuing to grow,” says Julie Edwards, chief marketing officer for All Aboard Florida. “The infrastructure of... I-95 and the Turnpike are not going to withstand where we’re headed with our population boom.”
All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), is like the great-grandson of that very first train that pulled into downtown Miami on April 15, 1896. Passenger trains continued to run along the Florida East Coast lines up through 1968.
“Around that... time is about when the road infrastructure started to boom in Florida and passenger rail started to wane,” Edwards says.
While passenger rail demand had been dropping since the 1940s, the bottom dropped out over the next 20 years, says a 2003 report on U.S. passenger rails by the Congressional Budget Office:
“During the 1950s and 1960s... Just as the Interstate Highway System made travel by private automobile increasingly attractive, it also improved the viability of long-distance trucking.”
Now All Aboard Florida is betting big (private) money that people are sick and tired of life on I-95 and Turnpike. By 2016, they plan to run passengers from the Orlando airport to downtown Miami, with stops in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
“We’re simply building onto the vision that [Flagler] laid down back in the late 1800s,” said Edwards.
More like completely replicating the vision.
FECI still owns the land around Flagler’s tracks, including nine acres around a shoddily fenced-off lot in downtown Miami, where the Miami Arena once stood.
At the moment, that FECI land -- also shoddily fenced-off -- is nothing but a row of seemingly unused parking lots “that look like effectively 'Dawn of the Dead',” says Peter Zalewski, head of the Crane Spotters real estate consulting company. “There’s nothing around. It’s a place that you probably don’t want to be once sunset comes. But what I’d tell you is this is really the key of Miami’s future.”
Those “Dawn of the Dead” parking lots were once Flagler’s original Grand Central Station. If all goes according to plan, they would also be AAF’s new Grand Central Station.
Zalewski says because AAF gets to pick its stops and FECI owns the land, the company as a whole is essentially in a position to create its own demand for its own development.
“Anybody who’s going to use [AAF] is going to go past All Aboard Florida’s other stuff: Its retail, its hotel this and this,” said Zalewski. “Think about going to Disney. You go to Disney, you ride a ride, you get off and you go through a gift store on the way out. It’s the same type of concept.”
It is the exact same concept Henry Flagler had a century ago: ship people to Florida and build resorts to funnel them into.
The difference this time, of course, is that a lot more developers will be watching and potentially developing around the sites.
Zalewski says developers are licking their lips at the chance to build around a downtown train station. Like with New York City, D.C. and Boston, the closer the train station, the higher the rent.
“Housing has always grown close to public transportation,” said Carlos Rosso, head of Related Group’s condo division. “It’s not a coincidence that Brickell has developed into what it has after public transportation has arrived to Brickell.”
While All Aboard Florida would have stops in downtown Miami, downtown Fort Lauderdale and downtown West Palm Beach, it’s really meant as express transit between Orlando and South Florida. It's not a commuter line within South Florida.
Tri-Rail Coastal Link, on the other hand, would become the commuter line Tri-Rail never could.
The existing Tri-Rail system, while successful as a park-and-ride service, runs inconveniently west of I-95 and more or less lets passengers off in the middle of nowhere. As opposed to Flagler’s FEC tracks which run like a suture stitching together the hearts of downtown West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
“The rail corridor that both the state and public wanted [for Tri-Rail] was the FEC rail corridor which actually runs through all the downtowns,” said Kim DeLaney, strategic development coordinator with the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.
But when Tri-Rail was being planned in the 80s, Florida East Coast Industries wasn’t interested in running passenger trains on their tracks.
All Aboard Florida now opens the door to Tri-Rail Coastal Link. With an optimistic six-year horizon, Coastal Link would share the FEC tracks, the South Florida All Aboard Florida stations and then add about two-dozen stops between Miami and Jupiter.
It would be a direct alternative to I-95.
“I-95 is at a built-out condition now,” said DeLaney, who is part of a massive team working on Tri-Rail Coastal Link. “So the best we can do is add managed lanes [express lanes], which try to make the roadway more efficient, but it can’t carry that many more vehicles. So if we’re going to move as a population. We need other modes of transportation.”
Both All Aboard Florida and Tri-Rail Coastal Link will have some convincing to do. Already, legislators and residents are expressing concerns about the potential noise and congestion caused by trains driving through their downtowns.
While the region may have been spawned by mass transit, it was built on the highway.
“Here in South Florida most of our development happened after the car was invented,” said Alyce Robertson, executive director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority, “and so it encouraged people going to the suburbs.”
But that trend has shifted, says Robertson. And from her perspective, at least, it’s a back-to-the-future shift, possibly all the way back to Henry Flagler. “We’re finding people now coming back into the urban core. They’re saying I don’t want to sit in my car and waste my whole life sitting in traffic.”