Martin, Indian River counties ask federal judge to stop Brightline's bonds - Florida Politics

Martin, Indian River counties ask federal judge to stop Brightline’s bonds

Martin and Indian River counties and Citizens Against Rail Expansion Florida are asking a federal judge to vacate the federal approval that would allow All Aboard Florida to sell $1.15 billion in private activity bonds to finance the railway expansion to send higher-speed Brightline passenger trains between Souh Florida and Orlando.

In a federal case they filed last February in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the counties and CARE-FL filed a motion asking U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper for a summary judgment vacating approval of the bond sale. They charge that the U.S. Department of Transportation, “ignored or failed to consider the environmental, public safety, maritime, and environmental impacts the AAF rail project will have on Treasure Coast communities.”

The $1.15 billion in tax-exempt private activity bonds were souight by the company to finance the double-tracking and upgrades needed along the 128-mile stretch of existing railroad, owned by All Aboard Florida’s affiliate Florida East Coast Railway, running from West Palm Beach to Cocoa. The money also would be used to build a new 40-mile railroad from Cocoa to the Orlando International Airport.

With those railway upgrades and expansions, Brightline intends to run as many as 32 privately-owned and -operated passenger train runs a day between South Florida and Orlando, linking the state’s two big tourist areas by passenger rail. The trains would be able to go up to 110 mph  from West Palm to Cocoa, and up to 120 mph from Cocoa to the Orlando airport, where a train station already has been built in anticipation of the service.

Federal officials approved the bonds in December, though All Aboard Florida has not yet sold them.

Already, Brightline has used annother set of private activity bonds to finance the first phase of the project, a 79-mph private passenger train railway linking West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. That service began earlier this year.

All along, the Treasure Coast counties and many communities along the way have opposed the trains running through their region [without planned stops there.] They contend that All Aboard Florida is insufficiently addressing the impacts so many high-speed trains would have, running through the middles of cities and towns, crossing canals and rivers and environmentally-sensitive areas.

This is the ninth lawsuit opponents of the train have filed, and All Aboard Florida contends the counties have spent more than $7 million in taxpayer funds fighting Brightline. The previous eight lawsuits were dismissed.

The 57-page motion from Martin and Indian River counties and CARE-FL goes into detail about safety concerns for a largely unfenced railroad corridor that has been described as having an “epidemic” of tresspassing,

“At the same time, FRA’s own guidelines warn that “[h]igh-speed passenger trains are difficult to detect visually and can be virtually silent until their arrival at any given location. The deadly mix of these circumstances poses grave and unique risks to pedestrians and cyclists,” the motion argues.

It also details safety concerns for the waterways, maritime traffic, and other matters, and charges that the U.S. Department of Transportation and its Federal Railroad Administration failed to consider them appropriately. The process that led to approval took four years and involved dozens of public hearings.

“Instead of directly addressing those vital concerns and directing that they be appropriately resolved in the Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision,  [the] USDOT/Federal Railroad Administration instead acted as the project’s supporter, deferring to AAF’s needs and wishes in violation of law,” the plaintiffs alleged.

“Even more concerning is the manner in which USDOT relied on AAF to develop responses to concerns raised during the FEIS process—a job that rests in the hands of the regulatory officials, not the hands of the company whose project is being reviewed,” Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold stated in a news release. “Instead of putting the well-being of the public first, USDOT bent over backwards to rubber stamp this project with little regard for its impact on the public.”

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.
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