Brightline Finds Funds For Massive Florida Expansion
Formerly known as Brightline, Virgin Trains USA's potential footprint and reach throughout Florida continues to grow. Here's a look at where things are currently heading with the state's privately owned and operated intercity passenger rail system in 2019.
A view inside Miami Central Station
Recently securing $1.75 billion in tax free bonds, construction on the 170-mile extension of Virgin between West Palm Beach and Orlando is anticipated to get underway immediately. Utilizing the Florida East Coast railroad between West Palm Beach and Cocoa and a new Beach Line Expressway alignment between Cocoa and Orlando International Airport, it is anticipated that the construction project will take 30 to 36 months to complete, meaning operations would begin by early 2022.
“It’s our expectation to get it done and to build out to Disney,” Virgin Trains president Patrick Goddard said of a time frame that hinges on permits and financing. “It is entirely conceivable that that can happen with the delivery of the Orlando station.”
Virgin officials said their top priority is getting 30 to 36 months of construction started “imminently.”
Source: Virgin Trains plans to link with Disney World by SunRail at same time as Orlando International Airport Orlando Sentinel
Virgin intends to include two additional Orlando area stops as a part of the project. A Letter of Intent has been signed to construct a station at Walt Disney World that would open at the same time as the Orlando International Airport link. According to a Trains Newswire report, Virgin is considering the use of Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) shuttle trains to connect to this Disney area station, which would be located near the northern tip of Celebration, to the airport. The Disney station would be integrated with Disney’s transportation system, hotels and theme parks. By including a 20-mile extension to Disney, Virgin would also add a stop at SunRail’s Meadow Woods Station, providing a direct connection between the airport and the commuter rail line that currently serves Downtown Orlando, Kissimmee, Winter Park and a host of other Central Florida neighborhoods and municipalities. Tickets from Miami to Orlando are expected to average $100 each way. By 2023, the Miami-Orlando route could haul 6.6 million people annually.
Virgin intends to construct a station in Tampa between Ybor City and downtown.
In late 2018, Virgin announced its intentions for a $1.7 billion Tampa expansion. In negotiations with the Florida Department of Transportation and the Central Florida Expressway Authority to lease right-of-way along expressways such as Interstate 4, a stop near Lakeland is anticipated but may not be included during the inaugural roll out. In a recent meeting with Lakeland officials, Virgin’s vice president of government affairs Bob O’Malley stated that the rail line does see potential in a Lakeland stop but that it isn’t a strategic priority. In addition to ridership, the company is looking for development opportunities for hotels, residential high-rises and office buildings around its stations. Lakeland leaders intend to make a case and be as aggressive as possible in having a station being included in Virgin’s initial plans to expand to Tampa. According to company officials, construction on the Tampa extension could possibly begin while the tracks from West Palm Beach to Orlando are still under construction. When the Tampa extension is completed, Virgin predicts as many as 9.5 million passengers will use the system annually.
Construction of the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center continues.
For the time being, Virgin doesn’t have immediate plans to expand to Jacksonville. At a February Jax Chamber Transportation & Logistics Council meeting, Vice President of Government Affairs Bob O’Malley identified Orlando as the rail system’s area of focus for 2019.
“The focus right now is on Orlando,” said O’Malley. “I’m sure at some point in the future we’ll sit down with JTA and the city and just have the conversation.”
Source: Jacksonville Business Journal
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 in early 2020, the Downtown Jacksonville 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.
Outside of Florida, Virgin is also considering taking their passenger rail concept to other regions across the country. Believing the model could be replicated between congested cities, the rail company is of links between Atlanta and Charlotte, Houston and Dallas and between Dallas and Austin.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org