Martin and Indian River Counties, together with the Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida organization, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against U.S. Department of Transportation officials for approving the Brightline private passenger train.
The suit, which also included the Indian River County Emergency Services District, charges that the federal department, Secretary Elaine Chao, the Federal Railroad Administration, and other federal officials ignored or failed to consider the potential environmental, public safety, maritime and environmental impacts the Brightline train formerly known as All Aboard Florida.
The complaint particularly focuses on the potential impacts in the Treasure Coast counties of Martin and Indian River. They lay along the route of Brightline’s planned Phase II, and have been the home to much of the opposition Brightline has faced in previous court cases [which the train company won,] and in state and federal matters. That includes two bills now in the Florida Legislative Session, Committee Substitute for Senate Bill 572 and House Bill 525.
Brightline began commercial passenger service between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in early January, and plans to complete that first-phase route to Miami later this year. The company also plans, but has only just begun work on, a the Phase II route from West Palm Beach to Orlando, passing through Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Brevard counties without stops.
The new suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington. It focuses largely on federal approvals through the National Environmental Policy Act. It also challenges the U.S. Department of Transportation’s authorization of Brightline to be able to use tax-exempt private activity bonds, charging the railroad company does not meet the rule requirements to be eligible for such subsidized financing.
“This is an action under the Administrative Procedure Act to set aside – as arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, in excess of statutory authority and otherwise contrary to law – the Federal Defendants’ allocation of $1,150,000,000 of tax-exempt private activity bonds to build Phase II of the All Aboard Florida Project,” the lawsuit states in its summary of claims.
Brightline responded by noting the multiple attempts by the opponents in spite of previous losses.
“This is the seventh lawsuit Treasure Coast counties have filed in order to stop a privately funded transportation project that is critical to Florida’s growth. The anti-progress vision of the Treasure Coast has already cost taxpayers $7 million. Apparently, there is no limit to how much more taxpayer money they will waste,” a Brightline statement read.
“Throughout the NEPA process, Indian River County submitted comments to the FRA demanding that the agency take a hard look at the environmental impacts of the All Aboard Florida project,” Dylan Reingold, Indian River County county attorney, stated in a news release. “Unfortunately, after improperly waiting 28 months, the FRA issued a flawed and legally inadequate Record of Decision.”
The new complaint contends that the Brightline project would significant the number of trains passing through nearly 350 at-grade road crossings along the corridor, including 28 in Martin and 31 in Indian River.
“Martin County feels strongly that the federal government rubber-stamped a high-speed train route through historic and environmentally sensitive areas of Martin County, ignoring viable alternative routes just to maximize profits,” Sarah Woods, Martin County county attorney, stated in the release.
The opponents note that six separate accidents between Brightline trains and pedestrians or bicyclists have occurred in just a few months, killing four and injuring two people, and that the accidents occurred on a stretch with a 79 mph speed limit, while the trains would be able to go up to 110 mph through the Treasure Coast.
Though several of the cases are still being investigated by law enforcement, in every case it appeared the person struck went around or under down safety gates and wandered onto the track in front of a train with lights and horns. Nonetheless opponents of Brightline contend the pattern indicates a safety problem.
“While the death toll mounts day by day, the fundamental issue is how many more ‘encounters’ between AAF/Brightline trains and pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists will occur at the at-grade crossings?” questioned Steve Ryan, CARE Florida’s and Martin County’s attorney. “We don’t believe that these crossings in highly populated areas can be made safe for trains traveling at 110 miles per hour.”