Tampa Bay Area thought leaders: Fast train, last-mile transportation options key to better future

Instead of white-knuckling the steering wheel as a Mad Max movie unfolds around you or sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on I-4, picture a calm but fast one-hour train trip from downtown Tampa to Orlando.

The major private equity firm behind the Brightline high-speed rail system is banking on the premise that business travelers, commuters and tourists will get on board with that idea.

Local officials, meanwhile, say intercity rail linking the two metropolitan hubs on the I-4 corridor will boost tourism and further fuel the redevelopment that is transforming downtown Tampa.

A significant step in that process is expected in November, when Florida East Coast Industries, a subsidiary of the New York-based global investment firm Fortress Investment Group, plans to formally submit a proposal to the state for a future expansion of its Brightline system from Orlando International Airport to a station in the area of Ybor City or downtown Tampa.

The Orlando to Tampa line would continue Brightline’s intense growth in a relatively short period. The South Florida line, the first in the state, rolled out in January and reached full operation in August, with a full schedule of 32 daily trips linking downtown stations in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach.

The West Palm Beach to Orlando expansion is then expected in 2021, with Orlando to Tampa following that. At this point, the preferred station location and route have not been made public.

Transformative economic development

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was part of a local contingent that traveled to South Florida in August to experience the current Brightline system firsthand. He came away impressed with the seamless passenger experience and with the redevelopment Brightline has sparked.

"It was a great customer experience. It really showed the value of rail as an option and it connected employment centers and metropolitan areas. From that perspective, it's been a resounding success,'' Buckhorn says. "The additional value is the development that occurs around the stations. As a product of the Washington D.C. area who was there before the Metro was built, lived through the construction of the metro and saw the impact of the metro, I can say that what happened in D.C. is exactly what is happening in south Florida. There is a huge amount of transit-oriented development occurring around and focused on these stations. I think that is exactly what would occur here as well.''

Florida East Coast Industries does not just run the privately funded and operated rail system. The company is also a real estate developer that builds up the areas around the downtown stations. Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Ben Porritt says the full Miami development covers six city blocks and includes two residential apartment towers, two commercial office buildings, and retail. The company developed a mixed-use residential and retail tower, Park-Line Palm Beaches, adjacent to its West Palm Beach station.
“In Palm Beach and Miami specifically, we have spurred a number of other residential and commercial developments near and around our station,” Porritt says. “As our project goes in, all of the areas around it are coming online and developing in ways that will make the area more vibrant with restaurants, grocery stores and the things that people want and need.”

Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce Senior VP for Strategy Josh Baumgartner was also on the August trip to see Brightline in action. He says Brightline “transformed that area of Miami with new investment.”
Baumgartner expects that an Orlando-Tampa leg would also boost the tourism and leisure industries. 

“Having high-speed rail that can connect those two regions instead of sitting in a car on I-4 could be critical for tourism,” he says. “Folks who come down to Orlando for the amusement parks and want to shoot over for a day to the beaches or to see a baseball game will use it. Then there’s the reverse of that for the folks who come down to the beaches and want to shoot over to the amusement parks for a day.”

“It would connect two of the major economic engines in the state of Florida and the two anchors in the I-4 corridor,” Buckhorn says. “A lot of the foreign visitors who come to Orlando to visit the theme parks also want to visit the beaches. It would be an easy access point for them to get to Tampa for better access to the beaches.”

Reinventing train travel

In these early stages of operation in south Florida, Brightline is still in the “awareness and education phase,” spreading the word that rail is an available, fast and convenient option, Porritt says. For the first half of 2018, ridership numbers were below initial projections but steadily increasing, according to the Palm Beach Post and other news outlets.

Passenger feedback on the stations and the trains has been overwhelmingly positive, Porritt says.

“We have taken everything that people are used to in train travel and reinvented it from the station experience to the train experience,” he says. “It is a lifestyle hospitality culture that we have built on rails.”

The stations in West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale have to-go café selections. In the upcoming months, a full upscale food hall called Central Fare is opening at the Miami station. A coffee shop, juice bar, fitness center, and an Einstein Bagels are already open for business.

In terms of amenities, select service passengers pay more to get more at the station and on the train. At the stations, there are conference rooms, workstations and printing services for business travelers. A lounge offers breakfast spreads with fresh-squeezed orange juice and freshly baked pastries and a self-serve beverage station with champagne, wine, and beer.

Under federal regulations, trains max out at 79 mph for most of the South Florida route. Porritt says north of West Palm the top speed is 110 mph and trains will be allowed to hit 125 mph between Cocoa and Orlando.
Onboard, passengers relax in comfortable leather chairs and have wi-fi service, which Porritt describes as a necessity akin to oxygen instead of an amenity. Select service passengers have food offerings -- breakfast in the morning and curated bento boxes later in the day -- magazines, headphones, and even scented hand towels.
As part of the effort to create an upscale hospitality experience on rails, Brightline launched Tasting Train events in September and October that featured food and wine tastings on board and at a reception with live music upon arrival at the Miami Central station. 

Traversing the last mile issue

In Miami, a major city that long-struggled to get viable mass transit in place, the Brightline station is part of a vibrant transportation hub where the Metrorail, Metromover and the future Tri-Rail system all intersect.
Buckhorn and Baumgartner say transit in the Tampa Bay Area needs to improve for Brightline to reach its full potential. While Brightline is privately funded, they each speak in support of the transportation sales tax on the November ballot in Hillsborough County as a way to generate the money to improve the local transit system.

“We still have to resolve the last mile issue,” Buckhorn says. “When you get to downtown Tampa, how do you move people around Tampa? That only strengthens the argument for local rail to move people to the airport, or the beaches or downtown St. Pete. That’s obviously years down the road but resolving that last mile connection is equally as important as getting Brightline because you don’t want tourists to be dropped off in the middle of downtown Tampa with their suitcases and no way to get to the airport.''

Ride-sharing services such as "Uber and Lyft will be part of that equation but we also need a more robust bus system,'' Buckhorn says. "It reinforces the need to pass the transportation referendum in November because it’s all about the linkages; it’s all about connecting the various modes of transportation, of which there will be many, into a single seamless system.”

Baumgartner says “the tax referendum is as critical a component of this as anything.”

“If we’re going to have the transportation infrastructure in place to handle Brightline, we’re going to have to make sure we have the investment ready to go. That’s where the tax referendum comes into play. It’s going to take our community investing and being prepared for when Brightline comes to town. Whether it’s the streetcar, improvements to HART and the bus system or bus rapid transit, we are going to need to invest in several different transportation modes to make sure we can serve the new visitors who will be coming in on Brightline.”

Meanwhile, Brightline’s expansion plans are not limited to Florida. In September, the company announced it was taking over the planned high-speed rail project linking Southern California to Las Vegas.
“We think there are a number of corridors in the country that have these same issues we see in Florida,” Porritt says. “They have high population densities, their roadways are at capacity, the travel alternatives are minimal, and they fit in the category of too short to fly and too long to drive.”
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.