Train traffic is about to get worse and it’s creating tension over Miami railroad crossings

By David Smiley
January 30, 2017
Miami Herald

As the developer of Miami’s most luxurious shopping destination, Craig Robins is acutely aware of the landscape surrounding the Design District, a sprawling, meticulously designed complex of high-end boutique shops and restaurants.

There’s the interstate to the south, North Miami Avenue to the west, and to the east the Florida East Coast Railway — tracks that are about to get a whole lot busier this summer when All Aboard Florida begins running passenger trains from Orlando to downtown Miami.

At 16 trains a day, that’s 32 round trips, all of which will pass through the exacerbating intersection where Northeast 36th Street, Federal Highway and Northeast Second Avenue cross in a five-point star just to the south of the district. Due to its configuration and proximity to Biscayne Boulevard, traffic frequently backs up and is blocked in two directions when trains come through, which Robins sees as a looming morass at a crucial access point.

So, with help from All Aboard, he’s pitching something of a solution: Open a new railroad crossing at 42nd Street and steer northbound cars up Federal Highway to alleviate some of the bottleneck and lighten the pressure on the intersection.

“It will really improve the flow of traffic through the intersection and mitigate the impact of the trains, which I’m really worried about,” said Robins, who also wants to stop thru-traffic on Second Avenue at 36th Street.

But the plan gets complicated. In order to open a new railroad crossing, the state requires that another must be closed down. So the Florida East Coast Railway petitioned the state this month to close a railroad crossing at 59th Street in Little Haiti, where they say traffic studies show cars can be diverted to nearby crossings with relative ease.

The request has alarmed area property owners in the rapidly expanding area and irked activists, who note that there’s already a railroad crossing into the Design District at 39th Street.

“It’s completely self-serving. It’s just to get rich people into the Design District so they can shop and park faster,” said Peter Ehrlich, a Miami activist who owns property on 59th Street. “We don’t want to give up our crossing so somebody can buy a Birkin bag.”

Miami residents will have a chance to comment on the application Tuesday afternoon at Legion Park, 6447 NE Seventh Ave., where documents will be on hand for review starting at 4:30, and public comments will be taken from 6 to 6:30. Miami commissioners must also sign off on the request.

But the petition, submitted Jan. 19, has already drawn a sharp response from some in the area. Tony Cho and Bob Zangrillo, who are planning the 15-acre Magic City district along 60th Street and the railroad tracks, wrote in a letter to the Florida Department of Transportation that closing the crossing would push traffic down 62nd Street and through their project, or down 54th Street, where two massive projects are planned on either side of Second Avenue.

The crossing, they also argued, is in Little Haiti, the country’s largest Haitian-American neighborhood and a key community in the city’s poorest political district.

“Closing this crossing will adversely impact access to U.S. 1 for this group of minorities who live and work in the neighborhood,” they wrote.

Robins said he’s sensitive to the feelings of the neighborhood, and is open to closing a different crossing as long as it doesn’t delay the opening of an access point at 42nd Street. In response to questions, All Aboard Florida spokeswoman Ali Soule issued a statement, saying that safety is the company’s priority and that “All Aboard Florida works with all stakeholders as communities request closure of existing crossings.”

Attempts to reach officials with the FDOT division that handles crossing openings and closings were unsuccessful. Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso said his staff is looking at alternative crossings due to opposition to the application. But he agrees that the 36th Street intersection is a problem that will only get worse.

“That’s a nightmare,” he said.

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