April 13, 2024

Editor's Page

Brightline's Big Leap

Vickie Chachere | 11/1/2023

The train cars had just rolled off the assembly line when I previewed Brightline’s new Orlando operations. It was easy to imagine these cars streaming toward their destination at more than 100 mph with their wide aisleways; modern facilities and leather seats made in Italy by the same manufacturer who makes seats for Bentley, Ferrari and Audi. There’s nothing like that new train smell.

When people talk about the romance of train travel, it’s usually about a sense of adventure. For me, it’s the dream of not being stuck on a gridlocked highway. Plans for future high-speed rail line expansion from South Florida and Orlando onto Tampa and Jacksonville are in the works. In roughly six years, I should be able to hop on a Brightline train in my home city of Tampa, and, hopefully within a decade, Brightline might be rolling into Jacksonville.

I know lots of people who love driving; I am not one of them. The rare exception is when I am headed out on one of my frequent road trips around the state, setting out in pre-dawn hours and finding a stretch of empty road when the sun peeks up above the horizon, illuminating the landscape in pink and orange light. It’s there you feel the vastness of Florida, appreciating it as a place where anything is possible.

But the minute you hit traffic in one of the booming urban areas, the feeling gives way to the inescapable reality: There’s not enough roadway room for all of us — plus the millions more residents and tourists descending on the state in coming decades. The inability to move people and goods efficiently and safely throughout Florida puts a heavy financial burden on households and businesses. The Tampa Bay Partnership, in its 2023 State of the Region report, noted the threat of overburdened roads. “Because transportation and housing alone make up more than 54% of Tampa Bay residents’ budgets, affordability, once a draw for our area, is now a major concern,” the report says.

There’s a glimmer of hope in those gleaming Brightline trains boosting transit-oriented development as a realistic alternative to our sprawling, car-centric existence. Brightline is encouraging the development of commuter rail systems and other transit options that can feed into it.

We’re less than a decade into Brightline’s history-making move as the first privately funded passenger rail line in the U.S. in more than 100 years, so we’re just now beginning to see the ripple effect across South Florida. MiamiCentral station has two 30-story apartment towers rising above it and scores of nearby developments. Travelers also can connect to Tri-Rail, the Miami-Dade County bus system, Metrorail, and Metromover, take a shuttle to the airport or Miami Beach, or if their destination is near downtown and they are able to, just walk. That new transit-oriented residential development comes in the luxury variety in places like Coral Gables and in workforce housing in neighborhoods which suffered for lack of investment shows everyone needs better choices.

In Aventura, where a Brightline station opened not even a year ago, there’s a flurry of planned multifamily housing within walking distance to the station, which offers shuttle service to the Aventura Mall. In Orlando, officials are working to link the SunRail commuter system to Brightline.

I was in London when I got a text from a Brightline official that service from Orlando had a start date. I’d spent days with my college-age son, traversing the city via the underground system, then traveling across the U.K. on the Great Western Railroad. Between the extensive transit systems and our feet, we didn’t need a car.

It’s not that moving about this way is completely frictionless. One leg of our journey was delayed about 20 minutes when an electrical fire above a track slowed trains arriving in central London. On another day, a switch malfunction had my train sitting on the track for about a half hour near Oxford. But compared to the hours I sit in traffic in a typical workweek, those were minor inconveniences. The British trains were clean and safe, the transit professionals courteous and helpful.

As I arrived back in Florida, mechanical issues on my flight forced a rerouting through Orlando. My husband drove to the airport to pick me up. It took two hours just to get off the plane, get a shuttle to the remote lot that was the only parking available and then to exit the airport. At the logjam that is Interstate 4 between Disney and ChampionsGate, every inch of the eastbound and westbound lanes were clogged. In the future, I’ll hop on a Brightline train at the Orlando airport and be in Tampa in about an hour, instead of the four hours it took us to travel 84 miles.

Zipping along on Brightline, I’ll still be able to appreciate the beauty of Florida’s open spaces — which might have a chance of remaining so with less demand for new roads and options for people to live along transit corridors. What Brightline promises Florida is anything is still possible.

Find me on Instagram, @VickieCFLTrend, and LinkedIn.

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