Sir Richard Branson Debuts Virgin MiamiCentral Station And Virgin Trains USA

Lea Lane,Contributor

Virgin MiamiCentral in Downtown Miami
Virgin MiamiCentral in Downtown Miami

Living in Miami, I’ve constantly lamented about the need for a rail service hub, like in most world cities. And it is finally here.

Richard Branson and Virgin Trains USA President Patrick Goddard unveiled Virgin MiamiCentral April 4, and revealed the first visuals for Virgin Trains USA.  Branson and Goddard, along with City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Miami-Dade County Commissioner and Chair of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Esteban Bovo, Jr. gave remarks at the ceremony.

The celebration marked the first significant moment in Brightline’s transition to Virgin Trains USA. Topics included transportation, mobility, the future of train travel and Virgin Trains USA, economic impacts and more.

Virgin MiamiCentral is the hub for transportation, business, dining and entertainment in downtown Miami. Connecting Metrorail, Metromover, Brightline and soon, Tri-Rail, the destination offers transportation options for the millions of commuters, visitors and travelers who will be accessing the station. 

Virgin MiamiCentral also features Central Fare, Downtown Miami’s food hub that will soon debut, a Citi Bike share and designated drop-off-and-pick-up zone for Lyft, Brightline’s official rideshare partner. 

The transformational, transit-oriented development spans six Downtown Miami city blocks. Besides the retail and dining venues, an expansive promenade surrounds two residential towers with over 800 apartments collectively known as Park-Line MiamiCentral.

The huge development, by Florida East Coast Industries, has completed its office component delivering both 3 MiamiCentral and 2 MiamiCentral, reimagining Miami’s Central Business District.

“Virgin MiamiCentral is the central hub for all things transportation and mobility. With the addition of the Virgin brand we solidify ourselves as the premier live, work and play environment in downtown Miami.” said Patrick Goddard.  

“Virgin MiamiCentral is the only destination that connects Miami-Dade County through its various transit systems, and with the combination of Brightline and Tri-Rail, connects the entire southeast region. Mobility continues to be key as our region and population grow – and we are meeting the demand.”

In November 2018, Brightline announced a strategic partnership and trademark licensing agreement with the Virgin Group, one of the world’s most recognizable brands in travel and hospitality. Executing a phased approach to the rebrand to Virgin Trains USA in 2019, Virgin MiamiCentral is the first element to feature the new Virgin branding.

“Virgin has a long history of changing industries for the better and inspiring enduring loyalty through outstanding customer experience,” said Sir Richard Branson. “Today marks the first step in that journey with Virgin Trains USA as we unveiled the beautiful Virgin MiamiCentral station. I’m very excited to see the transformation of our service and the plans for the next phase of the project to Orlando.”

Launched in 2018, Virgin Trains USA is the only privately owned and operated intercity passenger rail service in the United States. Providing fast, efficient, hospitality driven transportation featuring the latest in customer-friendly amenities, Virgin Trains USA currently operates in Florida between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with plans to expand into Orlando and Tampa. 

The Company recently announced that it intends to begin construction in 2019 on a new express service connecting Las Vegas to Southern California.

Tweet me @lealane, follow me on Instagram, where I’m Travelea; and check out Amazon for my latest book in paperback and on Kindle, Travel Tales I Couldn’t Put in the Guidebooks

When a Medicaid ride to the doctor’s office fails to show, others foot the bill

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes is sponsoring legislation that would allow Uber and Lyft to help get patients to medical appointments.

By Caitlin Johnston

Published March 31, Updated March 31

Elisabeth Olden, 53, waited earlier this month for the Medicaid-provided van to take her to a doctor’s appointment. 

The minutes ticked by, and Olden eyed the clock nervously. The wheelchair-accessible van was supposed to arrive no later than 12:15 p.m. for her 1 p.m. follow-up appointment. At 12:45 p.m., she called.

“They told me they canceled the ride because they couldn’t find a contractor to take me,” Olden said. “Nobody called me. They didn’t tell me. They just cancelled.”

The Pinellas Park resident is one of potentially thousands of Medicaid recipients who have been stranded, delayed or forgotten by transportation providers who are supposed to take them to their appointments. And many, like Olden, are choosing to take county paratransit options instead, which costs riders and taxpayers more money.

About 80 percent of the nearly 4 million people enrolled in Florida Medicaid have their non-emergency medical transportation provided as part of their coverage. Officials haven’t counted the number of Floridians who have missed appointments or been left waiting for hours, but the problem is so pervasive it has caught the attention of hospitals and transit agencies who are stuck paying the bill.

Officials for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority estimate that the agency spent $1 million in 2018 providing paratransit rides to people who chose the county bus agency instead of relying on a Medicaid-provided trip.

Tampa General Hospital is routinely unable to discharge patients because it takes extra days or even weeks to secure a Medicaid ride, said Peter Chang, vice president of care transitions. That means the hospital is racking up costs and unable to admit others while the patient waiting for the ride is stuck in a care facility they no longer need.

“I’m going into their rooms to say hi to them, and they’re saying, ‘When can I go? When can I go?” Chang said. “I have to explain to them that I’m trying to arrange transportation services and it’s taking time.”

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is sponsoring a bill during the current legislative session after hearing from a number of health care professionals with stories about patients being stranded for hours waiting for a ride.

“We can put a man in the moon in Florida, but we can’t pick someone up from a doctor’s appointment on time?” Brandes quipped.

Brandes, who has long supported rideshare providers, wants to allow transportation companies like Uber and Lyft to compete with taxi companies and wheelchair-accessible vans to provide Medicaid-sponsored rides. The hope is that providing more options will decrease wait times.

The on-demand service can also be tracked on a smart phone, allowing customers and hospitals to check on the status of a ride.

“We’ll have more contact and visibility from the doctor’s office,” Brandes said. “Today, there’s really no ability to track a ride.” But if the bill is approved, he said, “we can now call a medical provider and see in real time where people are.”

Right now, the paratransit rides provided when Medicaid service falls through are highly-subsidized and are driving up costs for transit agencies already struggling to balance their budgets.

Pinellas County’s transit authority provides door-to-door van service for people who can’t take a bus because of a disability or other reason. Known as Demand Response Transportation, costs of the program have spiked in recent years. Ridership growth of about 18 percent between 2016 and 2018 has increased expenses almost $2 million, CEO Brad Miller said.

The paratransit service, which often carries a single individual per trip, costs more than $26 per ride. Users pay $4.50 of that, leaving the transit authority — and taxpayers — to cover the remaining $22.

According to Miller, the contractor who provides paratransit rides for the county said a number of people were telling drivers that they were Medicaid recipients, but they either couldn’t schedule a trip or it was too frustrating and challenging, so they called the transit agency instead.

“It’s one of the main reasons we are seeing shortfalls in our budget,” Miller said. “They’re trips that should have been paid for by Medicaid, but instead we’re paying for it.”

Chang has seen a similar situation at Tampa General. Rather than risk waiting for a Medicaid ride, he said the hospital will sometimes cover the cost of a trip for a patient.

“We’re not shaving off an hour or two,” he said. “We’re talking about taking 10, 15, 20 days off a length of stay.”

Olden, the Pinellas Park resident, has avoided calling a Medicaid provider again after missing her appointment earlier this month. Fortunately for her, the doctor did not charge her a fee and she was able to rebook for two days later. But that’s not always the case.

“What if they couldn’t reschedule me and I had to wait six months?” Olden said. “That was just so bad of them to drop me and forget about me.”

Contact Caitlin Johnston at or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

Distracted driving bill advances—but without hands-free provision

Bereaved parents in particular long for stricter rules. 

ByJacob Ogles, on March 25, 2019

A bill aimed at stopping distracted driving advanced in the Senate on Monday, but advocates who want drivers limited to hands-free devices expressed frustration and said the bill has been watered down.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, sponsor for the bill (SB 76), stressed that the legislation has gone through substantial changes with two major amendments. But more shifts will come so long as the bill moves forward.

“For the parents hoping more for hands-free than texting and driving, this is a process,” the Trilby Republican said. “Remember, this is a work in progress.”

But Demetrius Branca, president of the Anthony Phoenix Branca Foundation, said the current legislation leaves Florida desperately behind.

His son, Anthony, died in a Tallahassee crash in 2014 when a van struck his motorcycle. The driver was distracted at the time.

“Maybe you do not understand the urgency,” Branca told senators. “Maybe you have not lived my nightmares.”

Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia have hands-free laws, Branca and other parents stressed. That includes neighboring Georgia.

But Judiciary Committee Chairman David Simmons offered an amendment putting the legislation more in line with a House bill (HB 107).

The Longwood Republican said the amendments to the bill narrow enforcement help prevent profiling of individuals. Changes include applying the law only with a vehicle in motion and zeroing in on actions like texting or writing emails on a smartphone.

The prior language for the bill, Simmons said, was too broad and allowed for officers to single people out for minor infractions.

“If you are on the phone or eating a hamburger or drinking a cola or listening to your significant other yell at you or you are singing with too much gesticulation,” he said, “the fact of the matter is, each of those circumstances of distracted driving could permit a law enforcement officer to go ahead and stop you.”

The legislation now also only allows communications records for a driver to be obtained by law enforcement in the event of a crash that causes fatal or serious bodily harm.

The legislation allows a transition period when officers can only pull people over for warnings. In 2020, it will allow officers to stop people as a primary offense and issue a citation.

Katie Petros, a Key Biscayne Council Member, attended the hearing and said the bill was necessary in a populous state rich with tourists.

“This is a habit we need to try to break,” she said of smartphone use while driving. “The longer we take to break it, the harder it will be.”

The bill now heads to the Rules Committee.

Florida Legislature must act on passenger rail service to ensure prosperity | Opinion

T. Michael Hines, Your TurnPublished 9:11 p.m. ET March 14, 2019

I was speaking the other day with a nationally recognized academic from Florida State University and a former Speaker of the House of Representatives regarding how to help the Northern Gulf Coast counties recover from the recent devastation to their communities inflicted by Hurricane Michael.

I concluded that an appeal to the new leadership in Tallahassee was required if we are to achieve a prosperous tomorrow.

Mobility is central to economic productivity. Increased mobility will be essential for maintaining our economic competitiveness in the 21st century.

I would like to offer a suggestion to reinvent multimodal transportation so we can take a more innovative approach to economic recovery and continued prosperity.

Over the next few weeks, the Florida Legislature will be addressing Florida’s newest problems with the best of its old ideas. While we might all agree that something new is required, I would like to suggest what are those new recommendations might be:

1. Purchase CSX railroad right-of-way between Jacksonville and Pensacola.

2. Acquire from Bay Line Railroads, LLC, the use of the railroad tracks between Panama City and Cottondale for passenger train services, and make similar inquiries with other short line railroad companies.

3. Negotiate with Amtrak, CSX, Florida East Coast Railway, Brightline/Virgin Trains USA, and others to determine:

  • Who might be the best operator of passenger train services between Jacksonville and Pensacola.
  • How we might best establish and improve passenger train services between New Orleans, Mobile, Tallahassee, Panama City, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and elsewhere.

4. Assemble a task force of academics, who are inventive experts in transportation solutions, at least one member being selected by each of the seven FDOT district secretaries and by the Florida’s turnpike enterprise director, to guide the FDOT and its community partners as they pursue every federal discretionary grant that might come into play to:

  • Reinvent multimodal transportation by providing for: first and last mile slow transit services to rapid transit and passenger rail services within the context of pedestrian-oriented urbanized communities and fast specialized transport between major regional destinations.
  • Rebuild communities devastated by Hurricane Michael.
  • Develop resilient, sustainable and prosperous communities throughout the state.

5. Identify how to build over time a safe, efficient, demand responsive, zero emission, and electric transportation system which is: fully (or at least to some degree) autonomous; powered by renewable energy; and arranged such that some elements go fast, and some elements go slow. Collectively these transportation system characteristics will allow Floridians to:

  • Optimize pedestrian movements and the use of bicycles, personal travel devices, passenger trains and transit services.
  • Enhance transportation safety.
  • Eliminate the need for operating subsidies.
  • Secure adequate transportation revenues from pedestrian-oriented land development, fuel and other transportation related taxes and fees, and vehicle miles traveled fare calculations and collection.
  • Pursue all federal discretionary grants that might come into play to reinvent multimodal transportation

The properly structured restoration of passenger rail services is the key to economic recovery and continued prosperity across North Florida. Time is of the essence. History will judge us if we do nothing.

T. Michael Hines is a Tallahassee businessman and investor. Reach him at

Orlando International Airport is tenth busiest in the nation, officials say

Matt Lupoli, Reporter

Updated: 8:37 PM EDT Mar 11, 2019

ORLANDO, Fla. —As Spring Break travel ramps up, Orlando International Airport soars into its busiest season with a new distinction. 

MCO officials say the airport is now the tenth busiest in the nation.

The latest data shows that January saw an increase of 5.4 percent over last year.

Orlando airport officials said in 2018, MCO flew onto the list of the nation’s top ten busiest airports for the first time.

That means Orlando’s airport sits at number ten, just behind Las Vegas and Seattle on the busy list. Atlanta is No. 1 as the busiest in America.

But it’s Orlando that sees the most air travelers in Florida, ahead of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa. 

This season, airport officials expect an even bigger jump, with some of the year’s busiest days ahead. 

It’s estimated that Spring Break will help push a 6 percent increase in Orlando, bringing about 6.7 million people through the airport’s gates.

LANE: Is a stricter texting-while-driving law already doomed?

By Mark Lane 
Posted Mar 2, 2019 at 12:15 PM; Updated Mar 2, 2019 at 4:51 PM

The Florida Legislature is getting ready to convene and for a 10th year, I’m writing about driving-while-texting bills.

It’s that time of year again. The Legislature will convene Tuesday and I will write about bills banning texting and driving. I have been doing this for 10 years now.

The human brain and the human index finger are amazing things. But not so amazing that you can simultaneously react to traffic around you while commenting on the passing human comedy on your smartphone.

At best, you rotate swiftly quickly between the tasks, doing both imperfectly. At worst, you sucked into the screen and stop paying attention to the road altogether.

Driving is a complex task, and however good our reflexes, we can’t do more than one complex task at a time. Some of us are less bad than others. Nobody is good at this.

In a better world, we wouldn’t need to traffic laws against texting while driving, or even talking on a cellphone while driving, any more than we’d need laws against playing the saxophone while driving. People would just know better. Sadly, we do not live and drive in that world.

People, especially younger people, get locked into reflexive smartphone use and it doesn’t stop when they get behind the wheel. Just look around you at any stop light.

After five successive years of unsuccessful tries, legislators finally passed an inadequate texting-while-driving bill in 2013. By inadequate, I mean seldom evoked and hard to enforce. Kind of a joke.

In Volusia County, for example, only 29 drivers were cited for first-offense texting while driving in 2017. In Flagler, 11 drivers. Nobody was cited as a repeat offender in either county. This did not happen because we have exceptionally scrupulous drivers. Any drive on Nova Road will disprove that.

The difficulty is that a driver can only be stopped for texting on the road as a secondary offense. You must be doing something else citable to be stopped for driving while texting. You can be pulled over for a burnt out license plate light but not for composing a text while driving. In 47 other states, this is a primary offense, citable all on its own, but in Florida, we always have to be the exception.

Last session, as legislators reacted to alarming crash numbers because of distracted driving, it really looked like something might become law. “The statistics have just become overwhelming,” said then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The tougher texting-while-driving bill passed the House with only two votes opposed but was stopped dead in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Similar legislation already had been filed for the coming session. But something odd befell it in committee. The proposed “Florida Ban on Texting-While-Driving Law” turned into the “Florida Driving-While-Distracted Law” with a much-expanded menu of actions you could be pulled over for. These include “reading, writing, performing personal grooming, applying a beauty aid or similar products, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo, using a personal wireless communications device, or engaging in any other activity, conduct, task or action that causes distraction.”

Whoa! Quite a menu. Something to worry about at the take-out window.

Minority legislators and civil libertarians already were wary about the anti-texting laws being misused for “driving while black” traffic stops. Now, they will be more opposed because the bill is overly broad. It invites pretextual traffic stops. An easy way to pull just about anyone over.

The Legislature hasn’t even convened yet and the measure already is in danger of being loved to death in the Senate. I guess I’ll be writing another column like this next year.

Florida needs the kind of carefully drafted anti-texting bill most states already have. It’s dangerous out there.

Honk! Florida texting bill should include red-light fools | Commentary

David Whitley, Contact Reporter Orlando Sentinel

A new survey shows that 57 percent of Florida drivers are self-absorbed goofballs.

It was based on a highly unscientific study of hundreds of motorists and conducted by a nonreputable polling firm – namely, me.

But I swear it’s accurate, and you’ll swear something has to be done about it. In fact, if you’ve been victimized by these people you’ve probably already sworn quite a bit.

We’re talking about our fellow motorists who use their smartphones at red lights. I’m sure most of them are decent, law-abiding citizens. But that’s part of the problem.

Texting while driving is (semi) illegal in Florida. Texting at red lights is not.

For some inexplicable reason, that wouldn’t change under two proposed laws that would crack down on texting.

You could still whip out your iPhone and respond to text messages, check your email, say hello to Facebook friends, play Fortnite, order a new Cuisinart from Amazon and become totally oblivious to your surroundings.

And it would be A-OK as long as you don’t become a traffic hazard. Which anyone who’s ever been stuck behind Mr. or Ms. Red Light Texter can tell you only happens all the time.

You know the drill.

The light turns green. A car ahead of you doesn’t move.

You inch forward. The texter still doesn’t budge.

You debate whether to honk your horn. You wait a second because maybe, just maybe, the driver is having a baby or a heart attack or grand mal seizure and you don’t want to seem like a hair-triggered jerk.

An eternity of two or three seconds passes. Still no movement.

You reach for the horn, and at that split second the texter snaps out of their digital trance and hits the gas. You make it through before the light turns red, but pity the poor sucker three or four cars back.

Meanwhile, Mr. or Ms. Texter is blissfully on their way to the next red light, where there will be a fresh batch of people to infuriate.

Am I wrong, or is the preceding scenario happening more often as our ADD society becomes further addicted to social media?

I couldn’t find any real studies to confirm that, but there are tons of them verifying the danger of texting while driving.

It’s against the law in 47 states, including Florida. Though we make it a “second offense,” meaning police first must stop drivers for another offense, like speeding or running a light, in order to write a ticket for texting.

As long as nothing’s wrong with their car, drivers can zoom down the interstate texting to their heart’s content. And there’s nothing police can do about it.

Two bills have been filed in the Florida Legislature that would make texting a “primary” offense. Any sentient human should be all for that.

I endorsed the bills even before a distracted driver rear-ended my wife’s car. The humans were fine, but her car sustained $5,000 worth of damage.

“I-4 and texting are great for business,” the guy at the body shop told me.

We’re spending $2.3 billion to improve I-4. Making texting a primary offense would be a lot cheaper and save far more lives.

It would save a lot of infuriation if Florida legislators changed the definition of “vehicle operator.”

Statutes ramble on about sending and receiving character-based messages, Internet connections and other communications while operating a motor vehicle. But “a motor vehicle that stationary is not being operated and is not subject to the prohibition….”

Whoever wrote that obviously hasn’t been stuck behind Mr. or Ms. Red Light Texter.

The bills filed in the Florida Legislature need to be amended to include sitting idle under the definition of “vehicle operator.”

The state’s DUI laws do. The car doesn’t even have to running for the person behind the wheel to be arrested.

Texting at red lights isn’t nearly as lethal as drunk driving or texting while driving 70 mph. But texters start, stop, drift and increase the likelihood someone behind them will try to beat the light.

They also make other motorists want to commit homicide.

I don’t advocate mass extermination, but a crackdown is called for. Being a “vehicle operator” and “smartphone operator” do not mix, even if the car is standing still.

David Whitley is a member of our Community Conversations Team. He can be reached at

Parking lot crashes on the rise in the Tampa Bay area, possibly due to distracted driving

Posted: 3:19 PM, Feb 05, 2019  Updated: 2:38 AM, Feb 06, 2019

TAMPA, Fla. — Parking in the Tampa Bay area can sometimes feel like playing bumper cars in a maze.

“If you’re not watching, God forbid,” warns Judy Gowing. “I’ve seen some pretty scary things going on in parking lots,” she says.

A driver blindsided Judy on May 7, 2018 in St. Petersburg

“The car was coming from that direction. And she hit me about right here,” Gowing said. “It left a bruise on my hip”

What happened to Judy is happening more and more in Florida every year.

From a car slamming into a bank in St. Petersburg, a car crashing into a pizza store in Lake City, a van plunging from the fourth story of a Miami parking garage, to people getting run over in parking lots in Hernando County.

Parking lot accidents are more than just fender benders in the Sunshine State. Thirty-two people died in parking lot crashes last year. Nearly 7,000 people suffered injuries.

ABC Action News pulled the numbers going back four years for Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Hernando, Sarasota, and Manatee Counties.

Data shows parking lot crashes are going up every year in the Tampa Bay region. There were 5,600 parking lot crashes last year. That’s up 16 percent since 2015.

In fact, there were more parking lot crashes in our area than alcohol-related, motorcycle and pedestrian crashes combined.

Guess where most of the parking lot accidents happen? International Mall in Tampa and Tampa International Airport.

“There’s a possibility that drivers think that because they are off the main thoroughfares that some of the rules don’t necessarily apply,” says Sgt. Steve Gaskins with the Florida Highway Patrol.

Sgt. Gaskins says the physics of driving a two-ton car don’t change just because you are in a parking lot.

“Even at a slow speed, this car, when it’s moving, you are looking at 5,000 pounds worth of steel and metal that if it rolls over you can cause serious injury and or death,” says Sgt. Gaskins.

So what is driving the surge in parking lot crashes? Distracted driving.

A new report from the National Safety Council found 66 percent of drivers nationwide admit they make phone calls while driving through parking lots. Fifty-six percent say they text. Half send or receive emails. And 49 percent say they take photos or watch videos while driving in parking lots.

For a deeper look at the data behind driver behavior in parking lots, click here.

To see how you can make your driving experience safer and less hectic in parking lots, click here.

First responders remind drivers to move over for emergency vehicles

Tori Simkovic Reporter

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. —January is Move Over Awareness Month. 

The goal is to remind drivers that state law requires you to change lanes when you see first responders, tow trucks and road rangers on the side of the road. 

Florida Highway Patrol said that failing to move over caused 185 crashes and resulted in the death of two troopers in 2018. So far in 2019, move-over-law violations have already caused several accidents in Palm Beach County.

“Just this Sunday, we had two incidents: one a couple miles south of [West Palm Beach.] One of our fire engines was struck while the firefighters were working an accident on the side of the road. Thankfully, nobody was injured. Only 30 minutes later, we had another incident up in the Jupiter area, where a road ranger was struck and we had to transport them to the hospital,” said Capt. Albert Borroto of Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. 

In just one month, Boynton Beach police have had three of their patrol cars hit by drivers failing to move over.

Move-over violations carry a fine of $119 and three points on your driver’s license. If it is not safe to change lanes, slow down to 20 mph below the posted speed limit.