The Brightline rail service wants the city of Boca Raton to contribute 1.8 acres of land and $12.6 million for a new train station, city officials said Tuesday.
Brightline parent Virgin Trains USA in July proposed building a stop in Boca, but details had been sparse until Tuesday’s city council meeting.
City officials said their preliminary deal includes signing a 29-year lease with Virgin Trains on city-owned dirt under the parking lot adjacent to the library.
The plan also calls for building a 464-space parking garage that would include 64 spots for the library and 404 spaces for Brightline passengers. The city would promise $12.6 million, most of the cost of the garage.
Brightline would be required to complete construction by the end of 2023. The city council discussed the project Tuesday and plans to vote on the proposal next month.
Residents who spoke at the city council meeting expressed skepticism about the city pitching in to build a station that will be used by a for-profit company.
“Brightline is not interested in putting us on a train,” Boca homeowner Charles Bennardini said. “They’re interested in land-grabbing.”
Virgin Trains launched in 2018 as Brightline, with stops in the downtowns of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. The train service hasn’t had much to offer residents of southern Palm Beach County and northern Broward County, who must drive 20 miles north or south to board the train.
For now, the train doesn’t stop in Boca, an important business and shopping hub and home to Florida Atlantic University. Singer said he contacted Virgin Trains to pitch his downtown as a stop, in part because Boca residents expressed an interest in riding the train if it were more conveniently located.
Virgin Trains operates the first for-profit rail service to launch in the United States in decades. The company owns the railroad tracks from West Palm Beach to Cocoa, and it occupies a publicly funded train station at Orlando International Airport.
Considering that ridership and revenue are a fraction of the levels Brightline expected, skeptics wonder if the concept is financially feasible. Through the first nine months of 2019, Virgin Trains reported ridership of 701,061 and revenue of $15.3 million. In a document issued to bond investors in late 2017, Virgin Trains projected its 2019 ridership in South Florida would top 2.3 million, while revenue would eclipse $112 million.
Wes Edens, the billionaire backer of the rail project, said during an interview in Orlando in June that he’s not concerned.
“We started a little bit later than we thought, but actually it’s very much in line with what our projections were,” Edens said. “We’ve moved about a million people in the first year. …. We’re very, very happy with how it’s actually gone thus far.”
Virgin Trains aims to extend its service to Orlando, where Florida taxpayers paid to build a train station at Orlando International Airport. In 2014, then-Gov. Rick Scott signed a budget that included $214 million for the Orlando station and an additional $10 million for crossing improvements. Scott called it “the right thing for the state.” Virgin Trains pays $4 million a year to rent the facility.
Its Orlando hub complete, Virgin Trains now must build track between Orlando and Cocoa, a route that will cross Interstate 95 and run next to State Road 528. After that leg is completed, Virgin Trains says, it plans to extend service to Walt Disney World and Tampa.
British billionaire Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group of travel companies, in November announced a partnership with Brightline, a deal that included putting the Virgin name on the company’s trains. Virgin Group owns “less than 2 percent” of the U.S. rail company, according to regulatory filings made earlier this year. The company is changing names and color schemes, trading Brightline’s yellow logo for Virgin’s red theme.
During a visit to South Florida in April, Branson noted that a resident of Scotland one day will be able to ride a Virgin Train to the airport in London, board a Virgin plane to Florida and then take a Virgin Voyages cruise from PortMiami.
All Aboard Florida, which operates Brightline, is owned by an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC, a global investment management firm. Fortress Investment Group LLC is contracted to manage and advise New Media Investments Inc., which owns GateHouse Media, the parent company of The Palm Beach Post.