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The Jaxson: Jacksonville Could Get Train Route To Other Florida Cities

Brightline train on track
Caitie Switalski
In Jan. 2018, Brightline launched service between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. It's since extended the line to Miami.

A railroad company called Virgin Trains USA is going public, and its plans include possibly connecting Jacksonville to the rest of Florida.

Ennis Davis tell WJCT News Director Jessica Palombo more about those plans in The Jaxson on WJCT.

In November 2018, Brightline announced its partnership with British billionaire Richard Branson and his company Virgin Group. As a result, the rail system has been rebranded as Virgin Trains USA to capitalize on the strength of the Virgin brand in order to target riders who value an enhanced travel experience, potentially ramping up ridership faster than originally anticipated. New IPO documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission by Virgin Trains USA shed more light onto the passenger rail service’s plans for the future.

Currently operating between Miami and West Palm Beach, Virgin Trains USA has commenced construction of the expansion of the rail system to Orlando and is now in negotiations with the Florida Department of Transportation and the Central Florida Expressway Authority to lease right-of-way for a $1.7 billion extension to Tampa, with additional stops near Walt Disney World and Lakeland. When these cities are connected, the rail operator predicts as many as 9.5 million passengers will use the system annually. The expected average fare of approximately $100 is anticipated for the Miami to Orlando service.

Built on a plan the adds transit-oriented development around its passenger rail stations, over 1.5 million square feet of mixed-use office, residential, retail and parking facilities are under construction around stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Additional infill development opportunities will be a part of the plans for a new station in the downtown Tampa area.

With this in mind, the passenger rail company is looking to expand operations elsewhere throughout the state and across the country. First up on the list is a plan to develop, operate and connect Las Vegas with Southern California with a high speed rail line that will link the Los Angeles region with one of the most visited cities in the country. To accomplish this, the company inked a deal to acquire DesertXpress Enterprises, LLC. in September 2018. Known as the XpressWest Acquisition, the deal is anticipated to close in the second quarter of 2019. When operational, a trip between Victorville, California, and Las Vegas will take 1 hour 30 minutes compared to 2 hours 50 minutes by car. 11.3 million annual passengers are expected to use the Vegas expansion by the end of 2023. Construction on the 185-mile route is expected to start in 2019 with initial service starting as early as the fourth quarter of 2021.

Further expansion plans call for Virgin Trains USA to pursue opportunities to connect highly populated cities separated by distances of 200 to 300 miles, utilizing existing transportation corridors, such as rail, highway or a combination of both. Several major markets have been identified across the country including Houston to Dallas (240 miles), Atlanta to Charlotte (240 miles), Los Angeles to San Diego (120 miles), and Portland to Seattle and Vancouver (315 miles).

Closer to home, the potential expansion map route includes an extension of the Florida system to Jacksonville utilizing the Florida East Coast Railway corridor. This could bring economic opportunities to Northeast Florida that could introduce transformation change for Downtown Jacksonville and LaVilla, which is the location of the former Jacksonville Terminal and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center. Already under construction, the intermodal center will possibly connect intercity rail systems like Virgin Trains USA and Amtrak with local public transit modes such as bus rapid transit, the Skyway, local bus routes and future bike share.

Assuming a resolution on the future of the Prime Osborn Convention Center involves its ultimate relocation and replacement, the former rail station property immediately becomes a prime location for transit oriented development.

Outside of Jacksonville, similar transit oriented development opportunities could exist around additional potential station locations in major tourist destinations like Daytona Beach or St. Augustine.