Rail Reversal: Miami Looking to China For Transit Help

Miami has increasingly relied on private investment to expand its rail system.
Miami has increasingly relied on private investment to expand its rail system.

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Miami knows it must grow its rail system to become a global city in the 21st century — and a foreign frenemy may help.

Chinese government officials want Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez to build high-speed rail that could be a cheaper alternative to Metrorail, the transit system that has been operating in crisis and a local $3.6-billion rapid transit plan has stalled. The Trump administration and Tallahassee are in no hurry to help it out, so South Florida leaders are increasingly looking at private — and sometimes foreign — investment to expand a rail system along multiple routes.

In April, former Mayor Maurice Ferré, a registered lobbyist for the Chinese-backed magnetic-levitation or “maglev” rail line, brought a delegation of officials from the Asian superpower to meet with Giménez, according to the Miami Herald.

The group pitched the Giménez administration on adding a maglev line on NW 27th Avenue, a major north-south artery parallel to Interstate 95, between Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens and downtown Miami.

Extending the Metrorail along the avenue would cost $1.8 billion in construction and land acquisition, according to a state analysis — roughly $140 million per mile. Meanwhile, another review found that maglev lines cost between $145 million and $250 million per mile.

But Ferré insisted that Chinese technology would be cheaper because it requires less maintenance and labor costs in the initial manufacturing. Reminder: he is a lobbyist.

Still, the technology is intriguing enough that later this year, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert will lead an American delegation of politicians and transportation leaders on a taxpayer-funded jaunt to Hong Kong, Shenzen, and Tokyo to see maglev train lines and factories for themselves.

“There’s a value in seeing how technology works with people, and not just on paper,” Gilbert told the Miami Herald. “There’s a value in seeing how it moves people, and experiencing it.”

That’s not the only Florida project that could come with private backing.

The Malaysian-based casino conglomerate Genting wants to build a rail line over the MacArthur Causeway that links downtown Miami and Miami Beach. Last year, two lobbyists who work with Genting accompanied Giminez on a trip through Asia that included a stop at a Chinese train factory and a visit with the head of Genting to talk about the rail link.

And on Monday, Central Florida and Virgin Trains officials broke ground at Orlando International Airport on the second phase of a privately funded passenger line linking Orlando, West Palm Beach, and eventually Tampa. Virgin Trains — formerly known as Brightline — already runs a line between West Palm Beach and Miami at a speed of 79 miles per hour.

Virgin and the private equity firm Fortress Investment Group are pouring $4 billion into the infrastructure project which will require more than 10,000 construction workers to lay down 170 miles of new track.

Trains could reach a high of 125 miles per hour making the trip between Orlando and Miami a mere three hours when the new line opens in 2022.

That’s almost as fast as the whiplash Floridians experienced when then-Gov. Rick Scott refused $2.4 billion in Obama administration stimulus funding for a high-speed rail network in 2011. Scott now supports the privately backed rail project and he and his wife have invested more than $3 million in a credit fund run by Fortress.

Virgin Trains CEO Patrick Goddard promised the project “will change mobility in this state forever.”

Better late than never.

7 thoughts on Rail Reversal: Miami Looking to China For Transit Help

  1. Great – the Chinese will be able to hack int the system whenever they want — good work

  2. From the Miami Herald article “The route between Miami and Miami Beach is one of six commuting corridors that make up the SMART Plan, an effort started in 2016 to redo the county’s transit plans for the routes. The county had already spent $80 million studying 27th Avenue, the beach link and other SMART routes but those reports sat on a shelf so long they’ve become obsolete, according to a 2018 audit studying expenditures through 2011.
    Adie Tomer, who leads the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative for the Brookings think tank in Washington, said efforts to pursue pricey, cutting-edge rail projects for Miami’s suburbs risk delaying simpler fixes, like removing street parking to create dedicated bus lanes to speed commuters downtown.
    ‘You don’t need to always be studying these things,” he said. “Is the right move to invest more in expensive capital infrastructure, regardless of what that technology may be?’ In other words calling a transportation plan SMART, is code for STUPID.

  3. Is this a joke? Not a single mention of sea level rise? Miami will be a ghost town by mid-century when its real estate market collapses and flood waters can no longer be pumped out. Real estate prices on Miami Beach are already down 10% because of it. They’re raising the streets by several feet. This is crazy. Florida should be banning all new construction in the Miami area and relocating government infrastructure to higher ground. Government money should be invested in easing the transition, not adding to the house of cards.

  4. Elevated guideway using dual mode vehicles would go 180 mph and run only on sunshine. FDOT had the proposal and a mid level admin woman fired the engineer looking at the proposal. At $200,000 per guideway mile it beats the Chinese government train. Instead an American company has teamed with a Chinese company to bring faster better service that serves the individual.

  5. Given China’s numerous rail disasters…………

    More like locking Miami into spending billions on shit it doesn’t need. Given In 2017, Miami-Dade collected fares averaging 17 cents per passenger mile — well under the national average of 28 cents — against which it spent $1.18 per passenger mile on operations and maintenance. The Metro rail system actually performed worse than the buses, collecting just 11 cents per passenger mile against 99 cents in expenses.

    It’s a stupid debate because buses can move far more people for far less money. It’s even stupider because the $300 million bus-rapid transit plan is also a waste of money as Miami can’t generate enough transit traffic to effectively use dedicated bus lanes. The heart of the debate has nothing to do with transportation and everything to do with politicians’ egos.

  6. The last time we looked at Brightline, Florida’s private moderate-speed rail line from Miami to West Palm Beach, it had killed three people before even opening for business. Since then it has killed five more. While you might think that people will learn not to cross the tracks in front of fast passenger trains, it turns out that freight trains on the Florida East Coast Railway (which owns Brightline) have consistently killed about two people per month for the last several years.

    Best-case: they don’t get funding. Least-likely case: They get funding, build it, and it’s a great success. Worst-case: They get funding, build it, hardly anyone rides it, it goes bankrupt, and the state or feds take it over and run it at taxpayer expense.

  7. Brightline, now Virgin Trains, has killed 22 people all told. And it’s no different than the Chinese systems – it’s owned by Japanese Conglomerate, Softbank, and the FECR tracks are owned by Grupo Mexico, a Mexican transport and mining conglomerate.
    The only reason this system even exists is to make money off of real estate deals and freight – double tracking to all the deep water ports in the state. No mysteries here.

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