Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida Archives - Florida Politics

Brightline gets state approval to sell construction bonds

All Aboard Florida received state approval Wednesday to sell $1.75 billion in federal private equity bonds to extend its private, high-speed, Brightline passenger train system from South Florida to Orlando.

Meeting in Orlando, the Florida Development Finance Corp. board voted unanimously to grant state permission for the financing after more than three hours of public testimony that included opponents warning that the bonds were illegal under federal rules and the project unwise; and proponents arguing that a high-speed passenger train is just what Florida needs, and the private investment is exactly what such bonds were supposed to support.

The sides were drawn mainly with opponents coming from the ride-over counties along Florida’s Atlantic Coast who’ve been upset about potential safety problems from a 110-mph train and the hidden costs that communities will have to bear.

Brightline trains already are running between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The financing package would refinance the $600 million All Aboard Florida already has spent on that system with the lower interest-rate federal private equity bonds, and use the other $1.15 million to upgrade or build new railroad tracks to connect West Palm Beach to the Orlando International Airport.

“The bonds do not pose any risk to taxpayers, counties or the state. … However, these bonds will assist us in financing our system, will generate positive economic impact throughout the state of Florida,” Brightline President Patrick Goddard told the board.

All that’s left holding up the plan now is litigation.

Members of Congress, the Florida Legislature and county and city commissions mainly from the Treasure Coast urged the board to reject the request, while members of Congress, the Florida Legislature and county and city commissions from the Orlando area and elsewhere rooted for the project.

“The board here is about economic development for the entire state of Florida overall,” FDFC Board Chair Daniel Davis, president of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. “From our standpoint, in terms of economic development, I haven’t heard anyone that’s out of the economic development field here today say this is a bad idea. … And I see that as the goal of what we are here for as the board.”

That wasn’t an entirely accurate observation, as critics of the project, including representatives of the group Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, raised concerns about the financial viability of All Aboard Florida, citing economic studies. But mostly their concerns focused on whether the Treasure Coast counties ought to be burdened with the high risks and expenses they predicted so that South Florida and Orlando could be connected by high-speed trains running through their communities.

Politics divided much of the hearing, but mostly along geographic, not party lines. Democratic state Rep. Amy Mercado and Democratic U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Val Demings joined forces with fellow Central Florida lawmakers Republican state Reps. Jason Brodeur, Mike Miller, Rene Plasencia and Tom Goodson and others in support; while Republican U.S. Reps. Brian Mast and Bill Posey, Republican state Sen. Debbie Mayfield, and Republican state Reps. Erin Grall and MaryLynn Magar, among others, urged the board to reject All Aboard Florida’s financing plan.

CARE-Florida attorney Steve Ryan sought to convince the board that a Congressional hearing last spring, featuring Mast and Posey, concluded that the deal was not structured as federal law requires, and is illegal. His group and Martin and Indian River counties already are suing in federal court to get the proposal declared illegal.

Ryan charged that politics was fast-tracking the train, and he suggested that Gov. Rick Scott may be behind it, with a potential conflict of interest from his personal investment portfolio, outlined in his federal financial disclosure reports this summer.

“We now know that the governor is an investor in Fortress Investment Bank which owns the railroad, and of course he had to know that when he made the investment. So the whiff that people on the Treasure Coast have gotten is that the deal is done; that the powers that be have decided that this should be the way it should go,” Ryan said. “But from a legal standpoint, you should await the decision of the United States District Court before you decide this issue.”

Mayfield also implied that the project was being politically expedited, charging that the board was considering the request without having key information that she charged All Aboard Florida still is withholding.

“Frankly I’m a little surprised that despite being short on details, you scheduled this meeting for the day after a primary election, which I find to be troubling. It continues to show a pattern by the FDFC to hold these meetings with little or no input from the public,” Mayfield said. “It seems All Aboard Florida is setting the board’s agenda.”

In fact, there were scores of speakers from the public, many of them from Orlando, heralding the project.

“The potential of the cities of Tampa, Oralndo and Miami to be connected is a game-changer,” Mercado said, alluding the prospect that All Aboard Florida’s next phase might be to connect Orlando to Tampa.

“This not only creates 2,000 jobs and $2.4 billion in economic impact directly because of Brightline, but it creates billions of dollars of jobs and job opportunities in Miami, West Palm, Orlando and throughout our state,” Miller said.

Brightline’s Orlando line could be settled in next few months

The next few months could go a  long ways toward determining whether the privately-run, higher-speed passenger train Brightline will travel between South Florida and Orlando by 2021.

With a seven-month extension granted Thursday by the federal government, All Aboard Florida now has until the end of the year to sell $1.15 billion in tax-exempt private activity bonds. Yet the certainty of that is low enough that the company is mulling other options.

The company is telling Orlando officials that it expects to begin higher-speed passenger train service between South Florida and Orlando International Airport in 2021, and that it also is pursuing potential routes to other markets in the future.

To do that, All Aboard Florida advised the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority a couple of weeks ago that it expects to issue the bonds in August or September, and expects to receive a notice to proceed from the state Department of Transportation in late summer or the fall, allowing it to actually begin construction.

For the Phase 2 route, West Palm Beach to Orlando, All Aboard Florida says it expects to invest as much as $3.5 billion on the total project. That includes, for Phase 2, buying land, planning, engineering, upgrading tracks and crossings between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, and building all new tracks and related infrastructure between Cocoa and the Orlando International Airport, and adding trains. The company said it would finance that with 40 percent equity and 60 percent in debt. Already, All Aboard Florida stated, in a presentation to GOAA, about $200 million has been spent on land purchases, engineering and design, and permitting.

A lot is riding on the Brightline train, particularly for Orlando and the Orlando International Airport, which already has built a $211 million train station, but has no trains. The goal is to connect Florida’s two largest tourist hubs by train.

Opponents, led by Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, have been fighting the train over concerns for safety for the communities it passes through, the prospect that local communities will pick up longterm tabs for crossings maintenance, and whether the bond sale is even legal. After having struck out in several other lawsuits and administrative challenges, they may be down to trying to derail the federal financing, hoping that the company can’t get pull together the billions of dollars needed for the route.

All Aboard Florida is calling its Phase 1 a success, saying it has had more than 100,000 passenger rides on the West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale leg since it opened in January. That ridership number was announced was before the Fort Lauderdale to Miami leg opened two weeks ago, and a company spokeswoman said the Miami route has been selling out.

All Aboard Florida officials have testified the private activity bonds represents the cheapest and first choice for the company. But that route is being blocked right now by litigation from CARE-FL and others. There also is a political effort seeking to stop it, led by U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, the Palm City Republican. Mast and several other congressmen, notably U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, the Rockledge Republican, and U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the powerful House Government Operations Subcommittee, have asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to suspend approval for public activity bonds.

Consequently, there is some question whether the public activity bonds will ever be issued. Mast noted last week that that All Aboard Florida couldn’t sell them during the previous six months after federal approval, adding, “The fact that Brightline needed to request an extension underscores that their business model is questionable at best without taxpayer subsidies.”

All Aboard Florida disputes there is anything wrong with the business model, or that they consider the bonds to be taxpayer subsidies, insisting that investors hold 100 percent of the risk. [Mast and other critics argue the subsidy is in the taxes not collected, accepted by a judge as being up to $600 million.] Another group of members of Congress, including U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo, the Kendall Republican, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Miami Republican, and Darren Soto, the Orlando Democrat, have come out to support Brightline and its effort to keep the bond approval.

Nonetheless, the company is looking at a Plan B, and perhaps a Plan C. Plan B, as mentioned during an April 19 congressional hearing, and cited again during the May 16 GOAA board meeting. Plan B would be seeking a federal loan through the U.S. Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program. Conventional bonds also were mentioned as an option.

In the official letter from U.S. DoT approving the time extension from the previous May 31 deadline to December 31, DoT Undersecretary Derek Kan stated, “I understand that All Aboard Florida/Brightline is still coordinating several financing opportunities for the project, and is therefore requesting the provisional allocation be extended until Dec. 31, 2018,” according to a report last week by Bond Buyer.

The opponents’ safety issue was brought home again last Friday with yet another death, when a man walking along the tracks was struck and killed by a Brightline train in Boynton Beach. He was the 6th person killed by the trains in the past year, and they didn’t start running in earnest until January.

In every case, All Aboard Florida cautions that the deaths appear to be entirely out of their control, as people stepped around barriers and in front of trains, or illegally walked tracks. At least two have been ruled suicides, and Boynton Beach police indicated that preliminary evidence indicated Friday’s deceased, a 46-year-old Lakeland man, appeared to jump in front of the ongoing train. Several involved high blood levels of drugs and alcohol. Other rulings are pending. All Aboard Florida also notes that every crossing has safety measures in place, including gates, lights, signage, bells and whistles. But opponents of the train have pushed without success for the company to commit to more fencing and stricter pedestrian-control  equipment at crossings.

Brightline opponents sue federal officials for approving train

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.”

Feds approve All Aboard Florida route linking Orlando, South Florida

All Aboard Florida received its final federal approval Friday to build and operate a private, high-speed passenger train system connecting Orlando and South Florida, U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Mario Diaz-Balart announced.

The announcement was quickly followed announcements from All Aboard Florida and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The administration’s Record of Decision, released Friday after years in the waiting, essentially clears the rails for All Aboard Florida to begin construction of the critical Phase II of its plan to run private passenger trains between South Florida and Orlando.

The company intends to begin service of its Brightline trains on its Phase I route, connecting Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach in a matter of weeks. That construction is virtually finished. The West Palm Beach to Orlando phase has been tied up in financing and litigation issues, and awaiting final federal approval for environmental impact, before the first dollar could be spent on construction, or the first shovel turned. All Aboard Florida has won all the lawsuits and has the financing lined up.

“This is the most critical and final step in the extension of Brightline’s service to Orlando, and we are excited to move forward with Phase 2,” Brightline CEO Dave Howard stated in a news release issued by the company. “This was a great year for us as we completed construction on two of our major stations and rail infrastructure, successfully presold tickets and corporate packages to individuals and businesses throughout the region and priced $600 million in Private Activity Bonds to fund Phase 1. We look forward to launching service to Miami and starting construction north to Orlando in the first quarter of 2018.”

There still remains strong and committed opposition to the train project, centered in the communities along Florida’s Treasure Coast that contend they face considerable safety and environmental risks, but none of the benefits, because there are no plans for the train to stop anywhere between West Palm Beach and Orlando International Airport.

In addition to opposing the federal permit and the $1.1 billion in private activity bond financing, which still awaits approval from the Florida Development Finance Corporation, the opposition coalition also is pushing for legislation in the Florida Legislature to require more stringent safety and environmental regulations for the train, which would cross hundreds of at-grade crossings and numerous waterways.

Those opponents are led by the Coalition Against Rail Expansion in Florida and including St. Lucie, Martin, and Indian River counties.

“The health, safety and environmental issues regarding the railroad will be subject to judicial review. USDOT’s [U.S. Department of Transportation] actions providing funding and rushing to authorize these bonds will be evaluated by the court,”  CARE Fl attorney Steve Ryan said in a written statement late Friday.

The stations in West Palm Beach and the Orlando International Airport are essentially finished, awaiting trains and passengers. The train will use the old Florida East Coast Railway tracks, and they have to be double-tracked and upgraded, including over numerous bridges. That gets the train from West Palm Beach to Cocoa. From there, new tracks and bridges will have to be built to connect to Orlando, mainly along the corridor of State Road 528, the Beachline Expressway.

“I am ecstatic to see this project advance,” Soto, the Orlando Democrat, declared in a press release that noted he had sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao just last week expressing support for the project and arguing that it will be important to Florida..

“We are one step closer to a historic high-speed rail service that would not only ease travel from Central to South Florida, but will also connect businesses and boost our tourism industry,” Soto stated. “As one of the fastest growing regions in the country, I am proud that Brightline has chosen to make Central Florida a model for cutting edge high-speed transportation technology.”

Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, chairs the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.

“I am extremely supportive of the advancement of new transit options, and am anxious to see the positive impact Brightline will have on our state’s economy,” he stated in a news release. “Brightline’s first phase, which is set to begin full service in the coming days, will showcase an alternative and efficient mode of travel for Floridians and visitors alike. Connecting South and Central Florida passengers via rail offers expanded business and leisure opportunities, and I am glad that DOT acknowledges the potential in the future of our state’s transit.”

The  company declared its project “is moving full speed ahead.” Over the next few months, Brightline will finalize the design for the rail infrastructure and the 70-acre Vehicle Maintenance Facility that will be located on Orlando International Airport property.

Brightline will announce the launch date for the start of introductory service between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach soon. The company expects to become fully operational and extend service into downtown Miami in early 2018.

Brightline February train car derailment comes to light; critics call it ‘disturbing’

A Brightline train derailed in February and opponents of the planned, east-coast, high-speed passenger rail service expressed frustration Monday that they only recently learned about the accident and criticized the company for not mentioning it during Florida Legislature testimony about rail safety.

Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida and the counties of Indian River and Martin said Monday that it took them months to confirm the Feb. 11 accident, and only after they hired a Washington, D.C. law firm to pursue it. They criticized All Aboard Florida (AAF) for not disclosing the incident to the Florida Legislature while company officials offered opposition to bills that had sought to set state safety regulations on the railroad.

“Soon after this incident, officials attended not one but two state legislative hearings about rail safety and never once disclosed facts about the derailment, while they sought to table the safety legislation under consideration,” Brent Hanlon, chairman of CARE FL, stated in a news release issued Monday by that group and the two counties.

The critics said records show the accident caused $408,000 in damage.

“The disconnect between the derailment and AAF’s failure to make it public is disturbing,” Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold stated in the release. “The safety and well- being of our communities require greater transparency.”

A letter from the Federal Railroad Administration indicated that one car derailed, at low speed, at an All Aboard Florida rail yard.

A Brightline spokesperson called the incident minor, on private property, and fully and properly reported, and then dismissed the critics’ concern raised Monday as a “baseless fear tactic.”

“As confirmed by the Federal Railroad Administration, Brightline followed all applicable rules by providing prompt notification about the minor incident that occurred on its private property. This is another baseless fear tactic by Treasure Coast consultants,” the statement read.

Brightline is planning to open a private passenger train service from West Palm Beach to Miami later this year. Eventually the company intends to extend the line through Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Brevard counties, and then into Orange County to connect the Orlando International Airport by high-speed train to West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Some residents and public officials of those ride-through counties have arisen in opposition, arguing safety, environmental, and other concerns regarding a train that would be traveling through their communities at up to 110 mph. Last February the two sides battled in Florida House and Senate committee meetings over House Bill 269 and Senate Bill 386. Those bills, which failed, would have imposed additional, state-mandated safety requirements. Company officials insisted the train already would be governed by the highest-possible federal standards, meeting all the strict requirements for high-speed rail service.

All Aboard Florida also has had a couple major victories in court against opponents who contended more environmental requirements were needed. One as recently as Sept. 29, from a Florida administrative law judge denied a challenge brought by Martin and St. Lucie counties and the Town of St. Lucie Village on the South Florida Water Management District’s decision to issue an environmental resource permit. That court victory for All Aboard Florida essentially cleared away all pending litigation, allowing the company to go forward.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, on Feb. 11, “a Brightline locomotive derailed its trailing truck while negotiating a switch at four miles per hour within the Brightline yard facility.

“The derailed Brightline locomotive was the second locomotive in a consist led by an FEC [Florida East Coast Railroad] locomotive into the Brightline yard and maintenance facility,” reads an Aug. 21 Federal Railroad Administration letter to a law firm hired by CARE FL and Martin County. “Brightline and FEC promptly notified FRA of the incident.”

That letter came after the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery had inquired to the FRA, on May 30, about unconfirmed reports of the incident.

“It is unfortunate that Martin County is forced to spend taxpayer money to make sure our safety concerns are addressed at the state and federal levels. A simple confirmation of a derailment took three months to get from DOT, but six months after the derailment itself. We would have never known about this significant public safety issue had we not demanded to know the facts,” Ruth Holmes, senior assistant Martin County attorney, stated in the news release.

Brian Mast, Brightline exec clash over public money for railroad

The Treasure Coast’s U.S. Rep. Brian Mast and a key railroad executive behind the proposed Brightline high-speed train clashed in Congress Thursday with Mast contending the company is getting public tax dollar subsidies despite claims to the contrary.

The sparring came between Mast and Florida East Coast Industries’ executive director Mike Reininger during a hearing of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, delving into the trains’ opponents contention that the enterprise has disguised public funding.

The broader picture is of a battle over whether that companies’ sister company All Aboard Florida, which will operate the Brightline trains, will be able to build and operate a passenger-service train system capable of going 120-mph that would link South Florida and Orlando. Many political leaders and activists in the roll-over counties between West Palm Beach and Orlando, including Mast, oppose the train.

Mast, a Republican from Palm City, challenged company claims that it is 100 percent privately-funded; that some of the federally-backed loans and private equity bonds it pursued include federal money; that the $211 million construction of the railroad station at Orlando International Airport is essentially an All Aboard Florida subsidy since that train may be the station’s only tenant; and that grade crossings and bridges that must be maintained or upgraded by local governments would amount to public money needed by the company.

Reininger disputed each point at least in part, contending that only interest reductions in the federally-guaranteed loans and bonds would constitute public money, and the bond program was specifically created by Congress to spur private investment such as All Aboard Florida; that All Aboard Florida would be paying fair-market rent to the Orlando airport for the train station; that the grade crossings are maintained by local governments through age-old agreements; and that the company would be investing “substantially” in the bridge upgrades.

“It’s not publicly funded at all. It’s completely investment of private capital,” Reininger said.

Mast sounded unconvinced.

“Despite their dishonest claims to the contrary, All Aboard Florida has repeatedly pursued public, taxpayer-funded financing,”Mast stated in a news release issued after the hearing. “Floridians deserve the truth about who is paying for All Aboard Florida, as well as why they are failing to address critical safety and economic concerns.”

All Aboard Florida didn’t sound worried.

“We thank Chairman Denham and the members of the subcommittee for the opportunity to present our views and their continued excitement and support for the project,” the company said in a statement it released afterwards. “The company has invested $1.3 billion of private capital to date, spurring thousands of jobs and generating significant economic impact for the state of Florida.”

An opposition group, Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida issued a statement claiming victory in this battle.

“AAF has claimed that it is a private enterprise. But the evidence does not support this claim. AAF has, to date, been unable to raise private capital to finance its rail project without the benefit of public—as in, government—subsidies. Today we start the latest adventure of disclosing AAF’s latest attempt to seek government subsidies—this time by seeking a multi-billion-dollar loan subsidized by the US taxpayers,” CARE FL Chairman Brent Hanlon stated in a news release issued by the organization. “At every twist and turn the company has sought handouts and subsidies from government. Their desire for subsidies is insatiable, unquenchable and inexhaustible.

Capitol Reax: AOB reform, workers compensation, medical marijuana, gun bills

The House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee approved an assignment of benefits reform bill Tuesday. The bill links fees to pre-litigation offers of judgment and requires policyholders receive notice if a contractor files suit.

“The Consumer Protection Coalition applauds Rep. Jamie Grant and House leadership for taking on the issue of Assignment of Benefits fraud and abuse that is driving up insurance premiums and threatening the affordability of home ownership for many Floridians. Rep. Grant’s bill, HB 1421, provides a solid starting point for addressing AOB abuses and the coalition is encouraged that it passed out of the House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee this evening.

The bill contains some strong consumer protections, such as giving homeowners up to seven days to rescind an AOB they’ve signed without facing penalties or fees, requiring repair vendors to provide written, itemized cost estimates for their work, and requiring that AOBs contain written notices warning homeowners that by signing one, they are giving up certain rights that may result in a lawsuit against their insurer.

The coalition and its members pledge to continue working with Rep. Grant and House leaders to further strengthen the bill to protect consumers and end AOB abuse.” – The Consumer Protection Coalition

The House Insurance & Banking Subcommittee approved a committee bill aimed at reforming the state’s workers’ compensation system. The bill retains the state’s statutory fee schedule, but targets cost-drivers.

“While we appreciate the House Insurance & Banking Subcommittee for their work on legislation to address Florida’s ailing workers’ compensation system, AIF and our members believe there is still work to be done.

AIF’s ‘Florida Workers’ Compensation Strategic Task Force’ proposed a bill that will go a long way in helping Florida’s injured workers to get healthier, while relieving burdensome pressures on Florida’s employers.  Florida’s business community deserves a stable, self-executing and affordable system to care for injured workers.

HB 1107, championed by Representative Albritton, addresses one of the components of relieving this pressure by exempting public records requirements relating to injured or deceased workers.  Additionally, we would like to thank Representative Fant for filing an amendment to the proposed committee bill on workers’ compensation that would have rescued the business community from the attacks made by the hostile Florida Supreme Court decisions.  Representative Fant and the six committee members who voted in favor of this amendment did the right thing today by standing up for Florida’s businesses – both large and small – against the trial lawyers.

As this legislation progresses, we encourage our state’s leaders to consider all aspects of the Workers’ Compensation Act in Florida and put in place commonsense solutions that address unnecessary, costly and time consuming litigation.  This will allow injured workers to receive their benefits as soon as possible.” – Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida

The Senate Transportation Committee passed a bill (SB 386) on Tuesday to establish the Florida High Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act.

“I want to once again thank Senator Debbie Mayfield for filing legislation this session to fill the void that currently exists in Florida law when it comes to high speed rail safety. The unanimous support the bill received in committee today highlights the importance of ensuring that all Floridians are protected from accidents and injuries at dangerous high speed rail crossings across the state. This is not just about our community which will be negatively impacted. This legislation will address public safety concerns in any community across the state. This bill also addresses another very important issue—cost. Any so-called privately funded project should not shift costs to the taxpayers.” – Brent Hanlon, chairman of Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (CARE FL).

Sen. Gary Farmer and Rep. Bruce Antone have filed legislation (SB 1334 and HB 1113) that would close the background check loophole at gun shows.

“We thank these legislators for their responsible attempts to require background checks at gun shows. It speaks to one of the Coalitions’ key goals: universal background checks. We will continue to push for responsible gun legislation and to fight reckless proposals that would allow guns on our college campuses and in airports.” – Patti Brigham, co-chair of the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence and 1st vice president of the League of Women Voters of Florida

A bill (HB 687) prohibiting the Department of Transportation and local governments from regulating or prohibiting placing small wireless facilities in public rights of way got its first hearing in the House Energy & Utilities Subcommittee on Wednesday.

“AIF supports HB 687, which would bring Florida into the next generation of wireless technology to support communities of the future.  By streamlining the process to deploy small cell technology around our state, Florida’s businesses and families can have smart cities and ultra-fast wireless network speeds.

This good public policy will spur increased investments in the state, attracting innovative and technologically advanced companies to Florida.  Additionally, this legislation secures the bandwidth Florida families need as their data demands continue to rise.

AIF and our members encourage Florida lawmakers to give Floridians the opportunity to be a part of the smart cities revolution sooner rather than later.” – Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida

House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues introduced legislation (HB 1397) to implement Amendment 2, the medical marijuana constitutional amendment.

“As lawmakers continue to consider ways to implement Amendment 2, Drug Free America Foundation, while recognizing that the will of the voters must be carried out, continues to urge caution as House Bill 1397 is debated and discussed.
It is paramount that lawmakers ensure Florida does not become a recreational-use state like California or Colorado.  The fact is there are voices in this debate who are proponents for recreational marijuana and it is critical that those efforts do not come to bear, as we would be endangering Florida families, especially our state’s youth.

Drug Free America Foundation remains cautiously optimistic since, in its current form, HB 1397 appears to keep a lid on rampant expansion of the medical marijuana industry. We will keep a close watch on this legislation as it advances, as we firmly reject attempts to turn Florida into the next California or Colorado with pot shops on every corner. We applaud the Florida House of Representatives and Majority Leader Rodrigues for their approach to implementation.” – Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation

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Bill to regulate high-speed passenger trains rolls on

A bill aimed at regulating private high-speed passenger train service in Florida that is effectively targeting the Brightline train planned for the east coast rolled through the Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday.

Sponsor Republican state Sen. Debbie Mayfield of Melbourne insisted that Senate Bill 425 is aimed at the general future of passenger rail in Florida.

“It sets the framework for how all future high-speed rail passenger systems are to be operated in the state of Florida, and it ensures that the proper protections for our citizens are in place,” Mayfield said.

But Rusty Roberts, vice president for All Aboard Florida, which is running Brightline, argued that railroad safety is exclusively covered by federal law, that Brightline was meeting the highest standards – the first railroad in the country to do so, he said – and that the bill’s only intention was to create the framework for litigation to slow down or stop the train.

Brightline intends to begin service with a 79 mph train connecting West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami this summer. Longterm, the company plans to connect West Palm with Orlando with a train going up to 120 mph. And even longer term, Roberts said, the company envisions routes to Tampa and Jacksonville as well.

But much of the political base between West Palm and Orlando is rallying in opposition over concerns about safety of high-speed trains crossing scores of at-grade intersections and numerous waterways. Mayfield’s bill offers requirements for fencing, upgraded intersection crossings and other safety measures, as well as spelling out civil liability.

“We believe, if passed, this bill will jeopardize Florida’s opportunity to connect major metropolitan centers with an express intercity passenger system. Its onerous regulations threaten our ability to complete the planned connection to Orlando, and as a consequence, will affect future expansion to Tampa Bay, and a northern expansion to Jacksonville,” Robert said. “This is the true goal of this piece of legislation: to keep this private enterprise from bringing a much needed transportation option to our growing state.”

“This is not about a particular high-rail passenger train. This is about about setting the framework for Florida so that we may have these,” Mayfield said.

The committee approved the bill unanimously.

That drew praise from one of Brightline’s biggest critics, a Treasure Coast-based group called Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida.

“The unanimous support the bill received in committee today highlights the importance of ensuring that all Floridians are protected from accidents and injuries at dangerous high speed rail crossings across the state,” said CARE FL Chairman Brent Hanlon in a statement. “This is not just about our community which will be negatively impacted. This legislation will address public safety concerns in any community across the state.”

 

Anti-rail group responds to letter from federal transit agency

A group protesting the expansion of passenger rail in South Florida never heard back from the feds.

But they did obtain a letter addressed to the rail plan they oppose.

The group, Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, said they worked with U.S. Rep. Bill Posey to get a copy of the communiqué after hearing the Federal Railroad Administration’s Safety Office had written All Aboard Florida — the rail proposal in question — about issues related to the group’s concerns.

Initially, Martin County, where the proposed tracks will lie, reached out to AAF about safety and financial concerns they raised which align with CARE FL’s concerns — namely, that the AAF rail expansion could threaten pedestrian safety, local budgets and maritime commerce.

AAF didn’t get back to Martin authorities, with whom CARE FL is aligned on the matter, on their November 2015 inquiry, but activists with the group later learned AAF received a letter from the federal rail administration on similar issues.

In that letter, according to CARE FL, federal officials echoed concerns the group raised about railroad crossings, which they insist must be improved and maintained at no cost to local governments, a major sticking point in the row over expansion

“FRA has determined that the highway-rail grade crossing plans submitted by AAF do not conform to the highway-rail grade crossing treatments in the FEIS … We also disagree with AAF’s assertion that AAF’s alternatives comply with FRA’s sealed corridor guidelines,” the letter reads.

CARE FL also said the letter “rebukes” AAF President Michael Reininger‘s commitment on the railroad’s grade crossing obligations.

“We are pleased to hear from Mr. Reininger that AAF is not ‘resistant to grade crossing improvement obligations.’ Based on that understanding, and communications from Undersecretary [PeterRogoff and FRA Administrator [SarahFeinberg to AAF, we expect AAF to comply with the grade crossing treatments,” the letter reads.

CARE FL pounced on the letter’s contents.

“It is unfortunate that the FRA only responded to Rep. Posey after AAF was given time to take corrective action and resubmit grade crossing plans in a manner intended to lead the public to believe that all safety concerns had been appropriately resolved,” the group wrote. “That said, we are appreciative that the FRA Safety Office seems to take seriously its responsibilities with respect to this project, as the rest of the Department of Transportation has often appeared not to.”

They contend that the AAF plan, nearly six months later, still does not address concerns about transparency, funding of rail crossing upkeep, sidewalk construction and safety equipment.

“If this railroad were to be built, AAF has demonstrated it will not take responsibility and act safely unless forced to do so.

“To be clear, CARE continues to oppose the ill-conceived AAF project — not only for safety reasons but also because of the detrimental impact it will have on our community’s maritime economy and overall quality of life,” said the group. “But if the project moves forward, we strongly believe that the long-term costs of maintaining the safety features critical to protecting the public should not be heaped on the local taxpayers into perpetuity.”

 

Sally Swartz: All Aboard Florida needs to take new route

The fight to stop All Aboard Florida from ruining Treasure Coast downtowns and neighborhoods, slowing ambulances and endangering pedestrians at railway crossings is far from over.

In fact, a spokesman for Citizens Against Rail Expansion (CARE FL) said his group of 15,000 already has raised and spent $1.4 million and is working to raise another $1 million. The money adds to the $1.4 million Martin County has provided and the $2.4 million Indian River County kicked in to fight the proposed railway expansion.

All Aboard Florida, which has renamed its train and campaign “Brightline,” would send 32 trains daily from Miami to Orlando, with stops in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach. The express passenger trains would zip through Treasure Coast communities at 80 mph nonstop, compared with cargo trains that now rattle through towns at about 30 mph.

The speedy trains “would decimate” Stuart and other Treasure Coast communities, former American Airlines executive Robert Crandall told Martin County’s League of Women Voters at a meeting in Stuart.

Safety issues are critical, he said. Speeding trains need longer stopping distances, and people who routinely walk across tracks now will be in danger. So will cars, school buses and emergency vehicles that get trapped in between railroad gates.

Crandall, a Palm City resident, said he is confident that All Aboard Florida is not a done deal. “We are going to win,” he said. “The railroad is not going to come through Stuart.”

A flawed Environmental Impact Statement the railroad promoters prepared, Crandall said, is the key to keeping the express trains away. The statement doesn’t weigh the affect on the community or on boat traffic, and the federal government so far has failed to make AAF/Brightline promoters do anything to fix the problems the trains would create.

Bureaucrats are stalling on providing paperwork opponents need to take the case to court.

But the project recently had a setback on another front when the Florida Development Finance Corp. postponed a $1.75 billion unrated bond sale for All Aboard Florida. Why the blowback from the financial community?

“They know better,” Crandall said.

Problems also abound with railroad bridges over the New River in Fort Lauderdale, over the Loxahatchee River in Jupiter and the St. Lucie River in Stuart, that Crandall said “were started under President Calvin Coolidge and finished under FDR.” The Coast Guard, he said, has decided the Fort Lauderdale bridge has to be open one of every two hours to accommodate boat traffic. The Environmental Impact Statement anticipated bridges would be closed for 9 1/2 hours a day.

“Sooner or later,” Crandall said, “we are going to get our day in court.”

One possible positive outcome could be allowing the express passenger service between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, but not on the Treasure Coast.

That could force railway promoters either to plan a westward route or to make a deal with CSX, which already provides service to Orlando. That solution also would not affect the big real estate projects that have sprung up around stations in the cities where trains will stop.

“We might have a very nice line from West Palm to Miami,” Crandall said. “That wouldn’t surprise me.”

While Florida tourism officials are touting a Miami-to-Disney World high-speed train in Europe, Crandall said he doesn’t see it happening.

“We’re still a government of laws,” he said. “If we can get ‘em to court, we can beat ‘em.”

Treasure Coast and northern Palm Beach County residents, whose communities would suffer if All Aboard Florida/Brightline wins, hope he’s right.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. Her e-mail address is sdswartz42@att.net

For more state and national commentary visit Context Florida.

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