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Hearings will help decide trains or buses for more South Florida mass transit

Residents from Miami to Palm Beach County will get a chance this month to help transportation officials decide whether buses or trains should operate on a proposed transit corridor along the Florida East Coast Railway in South Florida.

State transportation officials are urging residents throughout Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to attend five public hearings scheduled in September, allowing a public platform on the three types of transit service experts recommend for the corridor:

• A Tri-Rail-style commuter rail.

• A bus rapid transit.

• Or, a regional bus.

Public comments will be recorded and used to assemble reaction to the three options, potentially aiding the ultimate decision process. In October, local transportation planning organizations will likely cast votes.

How much the finished project will cost depends on what type of service is selected, said Scott Seeburger, the Florida Department of Transportation project manager for the South Florida East Coast Transit Study. If commuter rail is picked, the cost could be around $2.5 billion, bus rapid transit about $2.4 billion and regional bus about $220 million.

Easing congestion is a key goal, he said.

“We are going to see a lot more congestion in South Florida in the future,” Seeburger said. “The project is truly transformational for the region.”

The September hearings and October votes — by, among others, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority and the Metropolitan Planning Organizations of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties — should advance a project in the works for years.

Local officials are expected to choose one option because that has been the practice over the years — selecting what is known as the locally preferred alternative.

Once the preferred alternative is chosen — defining the transit type and route — additional planning and environmental work will follow.

Then, vital decisions must come on financing portions or all of the project. That will take about five years. Final project design and construction would take place in about eight years, if all falls into place.

Some officials hope the public will support the Tri-Rail-style commuter rail option, in discussion for years. Backers call it the most viable travel alternative to thousands of people who live along the east coast and don’t have easy access to Tri-Rail, which runs along tracks west of Interstate 95.

The FEC corridor, now used largely by freight trains, runs east of I-95, and through downtown areas of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and other densely populated cities and towns. The existing Tri-Rail corridor runs largely through suburban areas that grew out of the westward expansion of South Florida metropolitan areas.

Commuter rail east of I-95 would be more successful in drawing customers because stations would be at or near downtown areas, backers say.

Tri-Rail, on the other hand, serves areas relatively far from downtowns and does not go through downtown Miami. Travelers heading from Broward to the Miami-Dade School Board north of downtown on Tri-Rail, for example, must transfer to Metrorail and then to Metromover.

Armando Vega, dropping off a friend at a Tri-Rail station near Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport recently, saw the benefit of such a move.

“A Tri-Rail-style train on the tracks to the east of I-95 would be more convenient to people who work in downtown areas,” he said. “Getting to downtown from Tri-Rail is a little far in some areas.” Wanna win $5,000? Of course you do. Just click here to

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