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Philip Levine planning another bus tour of Florida

Philip Levine is gassing up a bus again for another tour of Florida, this time as an official candidate for governor.

Levine, the Democratic former mayor of Miami Beach, announced Friday that he plans to take a bus campaign tour that will start in Orlando next Tuesday morning and end in Key Largo on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 12.

His campaign is calling the tour “Live! from Florida’s Living Rooms” and promises he’ll be presenting his vision for Florida’s future  from inside host families’ living rooms, throughout Florida.

Levine plans to kick off the tour in Orlando Tuesday morning by watching Gov. Rick Scott’s “State of the State” address from a host family’s living room, and then providing a direct response, via Facebook Live.

“Tallahassee always tells us what they want us to hear. I’m going around this state to make sure they hear from us. From the living rooms of Florida, we will let Tallahassee know that climate change is real, the minimum wage is unlivable, that drilling off our shores is off-limits, and that taking away our right to home rule is out of the question,” Levine stated in a news release.

“This tour begins a conversation we’ve never had, about things we’ve never done, for people who’ve never been given a chance. We’ve heard from Tallahassee. Now, I’m going to make sure they hear from us,” he added.

Levine faces Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, and Winter Park businessman Chris King in seeking the Democratic primary nomination to run for governor. The leading Republicans are Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam of Bartow and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, who just declared his candidacy Friday.

Last summer Levine took a bus tour of Florida as host of a SiriusXM satellite radio talk show. That was before he officially entered the governor’s race, though the tour had all the trappings of a campaign trip.

The exact locations of host families for each living room stop on the next b us tour still are being confirmed. His campaign plans his first stop, in Orlando, at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday morning, at a location to be announced.

Tuesday afternoon he’ll be in Gainesville. Wednesday morning he’ll be in Jacksonville; Wednesday afternoon, Tallahassee; and Wednesday evening, Pensacola. Thursday morning he’ll be in Tampa; and Thursday afternoon, Fort Myers. Friday morning, Jan. 12, he’ll start in West Palm Beach; Friday afternoon he’ll appear in Fort Lauderdale, and then in Key Largo.

Rick Scott’s Puerto Rico roundtable reaches same concern as others: housing

Having largely tackled many of the education and jobs challenges arising from the mass migration of Puerto Ricans seeking a place to live in Florida after Hurricane Maria largely shut down their lives on the island, state and local officials gathered in Orlando told Gov. Rick Scott that housing remains a major problem.

Scott met with about two dozen Central Florida elected and nonprofit officials Thursday afternoon including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette, Osceola County Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr. and Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez and mostly received praise for his administration’s efforts to coordinate services offered to tens of thousands of people fleeing Puerto Rico since September.

That praise focused mainly on job support and education accommodation efforts, and on coordination of resources and programs, and responsiveness. State Rep. Bob Cortes, a Republican, said Scott and his office responded quickly to all his concerns, starting with solving education matters. State Rep. Rene Plasencia, a Republican, said he would call Scott’s office sometimes five, six times a day, and always got answers.

Not so with discussions of housing challenges, which ran more of a gamut from universal concern to, when state Sen. Victor Torres got his turn, anger and frustration.

That began with Dyer, who like Torres was one of a small number of Democrats in the meeting, urging Scott and the Florida lawmakers present [Torres, Cortes, Plasencia and Republican state Rep. Mike Miller] to focus on freeing up funds for longer-term investment in affordable housing throughout Central Florida.

“Quite honestly there is a crisis, and we can’t solve it … city by city or county by county. we need a statewide strategy on that,” Dyer said.

Cortes pointed out that his House Bill 987 is seeking some long-term answers. Others pointed out that federal tax credit reassignments could be requested, and Alvarez argued that red tape still need to be cut. But with about 300,000 people who’ve come from Puerto Rico to Florida in the past 100 days, the short-term solutions of people sleeping on relatives’ couches or in motel rooms on FEMA vouchers will give way soon, in a housing environment already airtight.

“I think we all have to focus on housing,” Scott agreed. “It actually is a problem all around the state, right? especially in a place like this where you have so many people moving here and, and the jobs, and the unbelievable number of people who have come in.”

In fact, a Career Source official said, people coming from Puerto Rico are finding jobs, and with the state’s ability to waive many of the professional certification requirements in lieu of Puerto Rico certifications, many are finding jobs in their professions. “But once we get them employed, housing is an issue,” she said.

Torres ripped into Scott and the Republican leadership of the Florida Legislature for consistently transferring affordable housing money out of Florida’s Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund, nearly a billion dollars in eight years, by Torres’ count.

“We need to change that. In your budget you have, right now, $92 million being withdrawn from the Sadowski Funds. We need you to put those funds back, and work with us, so we can do more affordable housing,” Torres said. “The question here lies: affordable housing. It has to be on a pay scale. We have workers who work hard but they’re not on good salaries … We have to get them out of the hotels. Get them out of their cars. We need to get them out of places they don’t belong, with their kids. That’s my goal.”

Afterward, Scott defended his commitment to affordable housing, saying he was doing what he could, and that was more now that the economy was strong.

“I put more money in the budget this year. I’m going to continue to focus on it. You have to understand, I grew up in public housing. I know the importance,” Scott said. “I’m going to keep doing it. But the way you do it is you work with the legislative process to get as much as you can.”

Transitional shelter voucher program extended for Puerto Rico evacuees

Evacuees seeking a place to live in Florida after Hurricane Maria wrecked their homes in Puerto Rico will get another two months of a program that allows them to use federal vouchers to live in hotels or motels.

FEMA has extended the Transitional Shelter Assistance Program, set to expire Jan. 13, to March 20, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando announced Wednesday.

FEMA extended to program at the request of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, recognizing the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who fled to Florida in the past three months, but arrived in regions where affordable housing is scarce. Latest word from the Florida Division of Emergency Management is more than 300,000 people have traveled from the island to Florida since early October, though no one is certain how many have stayed.

“I would like to thank Puerto Rico’s Governor Rosselló for requesting and FEMA for approving a 60-day extension to the TSA/Hotel Voucher program,” Soto said in a news release. “This will help thousands of recent Puerto Rican families relocating to Central Florida with temporary housing. We will continue to work with the Puerto Rico Government to get a direct lease program and make sure we provide adequate housing assistance for those Puerto Ricans still in need.”

Wekiva Parkway wildlife bridges over Wekiva River begun

Construction has begun of three Wekiva Parkway bridges over the Wekiva River, drawing on complex engineering and construction that were critical in winning over approval from much of the environmental and conservation community for the overall 25-mile tolled expressway, the Florida Department of Transportation announced.

The bridges, carrying the expressway and two non-tolled, one-lane service roads plus walking and bicycling paths, will extend nearly a half mile across the river and its extended banks, at the height of 60 feet, creating a broad wildlife corridor underneath, connecting Seminole State Forest, Rock Springs Run State Reserve and the Lower Wekiva River Preserve.

The Wekiva River is recognized as a National Wild and Scenic River and a Florida Outstanding Waterway.

The bridges are part of Section 6 of the Wekiva Parkway construction project, a joint venture of the Florida Department of Transportation and the Central Florida Expressway Authority. When completely opened in 2021, it will connect State Road 429 in western Orange County and State Road 417 in northern Seminole, essentially completing a tolled expressway loop around greater Orlando.

Wekiva Parkway Section 6 construction, overseen by the Florida Department of Transportation, began October 17, on six miles of a largely elevated expressway along the State Road 46 corridor from the SR 429 interchange east of Camp Challenge Road in Lake County to just west of Longwood-Markham Road in Seminole County. Construction crews are now driving piles for bridge foundations.

The wildlife corridor along the Wekiva River will be one of four created by sections of elevated highways through the environmentally-sensitive and wildlife-rich Wekiva region. Opposition to the Wekiva Parkway eased, and agreements were signed in 2004 contingent on the parkway being far more accommodating to the preservation of the environment than typical highway projects. The wildlife bridges will total about 7,700 feet in length, providing nearly 100 times the safe passageway for animals as the two current wildlife tunnels under SR 46 in this area.

The bridges will be built using a technique known as “top-down construction” to minimize impacts to the Wekiva River. Floating turbidity barrier and sediment monitoring devices are being used to help protect the river during the work. The project team also is coordinating closely with environmental agencies and advocates. The bridges will replace the old SR 46 bridge, using slight arches, stone relief and other aesthetic designs intended to make them more visually appealing to river users.

Throughout Section 6, the wildlife bridges will total about 7,700 feet in length, providing nearly 100 times the safe passageway for animals as the two current wildlife tunnels under SR 46 in this area.

Brightline gets $1.1B financing approval for Orlando train

Brightline has secured federal approval for $1.15 billion in private activity bonds to finance its private, high-speed passenger train planned to link its South Florida passenger train railway with Orlando, the company announced Friday.

The company, formerly known as All Aboard Florida, has received U.S. Department of Transportation approval for the tax-exempt bonds to double-track the rail line between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, and build new tracks from Cocoa to the Orlando International Airport, which is just finishing construction of a train station.

In other news, the company also announced it has secured the final two permits it needs from the South Florida Water Management District for the project.

Earlier this month the Federal Railroad Administration approved the route. Brightline also has won several court cases this year, ending legal challenges brought by opponents of the project, chiefly some political leaders and residents in the ride-over Treasure Coast counties between West Palm Beach and Orlando. There also are bills in the Florida Legislature, sponsored by Treasure Coast lawmakers, seeking to demand state jurisdiction over safety matters and construction.

The company indicated it still is exploring other financing options. Nonetheless, it reported it plans to start construction of that Phase 2 of its railroad in early 2018. It also intends to build a train maintenance yard on land leased from the Orlando International Airport.

Phase 1 is the railway connecting West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami for private passenger train service. The company has said it intends to start service on that line in early 2018 but has not yet announced an inauguration date.

“In another major step forward for Brightline’s Phase 2 extension to Orlando, U.S. DOT approved a $1.15 billion Private Activity Bond allocation,” Brightline CEO Dave Howard said. “After a successful $600 million PAB closing this week, we are pleased to have this financing option available. We appreciate the leadership of U.S. DOT as they work to move major infrastructure projects forward, creating thousands of jobs and stimulating hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development.”

The financing option becomes available as opponents of the train continue to question the company’s financing. Earlier this week, attorneys for Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, Martin County, and Indian River County wrote to the U.S. Department of Transportation raising questions about the anticipated approval of private activity bonds use. Those opponents have been challenging Brightline both in federal and state venues. They were not immediately available Friday to discuss the U.S. DOT decision.

Brightline is still analyzing all financing options for Phase 2, including a Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan. With all federal approvals in place, Brightline is finalizing the engineering and design for the rail infrastructure. Additionally, Brightline is working on the installation of a new signal system and Positive Train Control (PTC) for the entire system between Miami and Orlando. PTC will be in place between Miami and West Palm Beach in 2018 and will be operational along the entire 235-mile route when the extension to Orlando opens.

Groups calling attention to foreclosures following Puerto Ricans fleeing to Florida

Their work in Puerto Rico gone, their home still without power, their family now living in a motel in Orlando, and their future still uncertain, Emanuel Ortiz and Crystal Rodriguez now hear their bank threatening to foreclose on their home in Bayamón because they haven’t been able to make a house payment since Hurricane Maria wiped them out.

The situation may be widespread, according to a coalition of mostly progressive-politics groups led by VAMOS4PR that held a set of press conferences this week, including one in Orlando. They were calling attention to the findings of a report from Hedge Clippers that found foreclosures were skyrocketing on the island even before Hurricane Maria’s devastation in September, and that many of the families fleeing to stateside like Ortiz, Rodriguez and their two young children, may wind up with no homes to go back to.

More than 250,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island for Florida since early October. It’s unknown how many came temporarily, or hoped to come only temporarily. Ortiz and Rodriguez hope to return as soon as they can. But will they lose their home before they can return?

“She’s scared that might happen,” said Carolina Gonzalez of VAMOS4PR, translating questions and answers between English and Spanish for Rodriguez and Florida Politics. “She doesn’t want to lose it, but she’s just not sure how she’s going to be able to manage.”

Their bank, Banco Popular, informed them that they must bring their mortgage payments up to date by January or the bank intends to foreclose, Rodriguez said. Banco Popular did not immediately respond to a Florida Politics inquiry about the situation.

Back in Puerto Rico, Ortiz had his own business airbrushing cars, but no one post-Maria was seeking to get their cars customized, and power was difficult to arrange to run his equipment anyway. Rodriguez worked as a secretary in a private education resource center, but the storm damaged and shut down that business and she got laid off. They came to Orlando to stay temporarily with a dear friend, but after a month they got FEMA vouchers to move into a motel. Ortiz finally found work this past week in Orlando, in a furniture rental store. That was in September, but they’re still awaiting their first check.

VAMOS4PR and the other groups in the network made demands this week that banks doing business in Puerto Rico find ways to be merciful. In particular the report from Hedge Clippers, a group that challenges hedge funds, focused on what it called the most aggressive foreclosure activity in Puerto Rico, by TPG Capital and its affiliate Rushmore. In the case of TPG the coalition accused it the company of being very aggressive in trying to take properties, stating that TPG has 384 active foreclosure cases in Puerto Rico. In one case, the coalition said, a judge denied an eviction process because the judge said he did not know if the family would be able to find alternate shelter in their storm-ravaged community.

On Wednesday the coalition held events in ten cities worldwide: Orlando, Boston, New York, Bridgeport, Elizabeth, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and London, calling attention to the foreclosures challenge in Puerto Rico and the activities of TPG in particular.

TPG and Rushmore indicated they have put a moratorium of at least six months on new foreclosures on the island from the hurricane through March, and also are seeking to stop processing of the existing foreclosures, except for homes that had been known to be vacant prior to the storm.

“Preying on families that still have no electricity, food, or basic services is inhumane,” Yulissa Arce from Hedge Clippers and Organize Florida said. “We’re here to tell Rushmore, TPG and companies like them that we will not let them get away with these practices, today or going forward, and that they must stop their foreclosures in Puerto Rico and in places where they are taking advantage of people who are already struggling.”

Philip Levine hosting Christmas lunches for displaced Puerto Ricans

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine is seeking to spread a little Christmas cheer among displaced Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Miami this weekend, with holiday lunches planned in both cities for families who left the island because of Hurricane Maria devastation.

Levine’s campaign said they are expecting about 150 people at “First in Florida” Christmas lunches being planned at the Pekaditos Mi Viejo San Juan Restaurant in Miami on Friday, and at Acacia’s El Centro Borinqueño in Orlando on Saturday.

In the 2018 governor’s race, Levine faces a primary contest with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Winter Park businessman Chris King, and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, who volunteered at Acacia earlier this fall. Leading Republican candidate Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also has come to Orlando to volunteer services to help displaced Puerto Ricans, through the nearby LatinoLeadership office.

Levine hosted a similar, non-Puerto Rico oriented Christmas lunch Thursday in Miami.

Acacia is among the organizations that have been on the front lines trying to help Puerto Ricans who have flooded Florida, notably Central Florida and Miami, seeking a place to live after Hurricanes Irma and Maria made their homes uninhabitable and life difficult on the island. Three months after the storms much of the island remains without power and much of the economy at a standstill.

Earlier this week the Florida Division of Emergency Management reported that more than 250,000 people have come from the island to Florida since early October, and the number continues to climb by thousands daily. It is unknown how many are staying, and how many are going elsewhere, but evidence indicates tens of thousands at least remain, many having left almost everything behind in Puerto Rico.

Brightline cancels finance meeting

All Aboard Florida canceled an emergency meeting of the Florida Development Finance Corporation set for Monday to consider backing $1.1 billion in private activity bonds for the private, high-speed passenger Brightline railroad’s South Florida to Orlando phase of construction.

The company said it requested the cancellation due to the House and Senate agreeing to a tax reform bill that preserves private activity bonds.

However, this is the same meeting that attorneys for opponents of the train charged could be a violation of Florida’s open meetings laws, in a letter last week urging for postponement.

“This was nothing more than a fabricated emergency, once again demonstrating AAF’s desperate reliance on taxpayer subsidies to fund its ill-conceived project,” Steve Ryan, attorney for Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, declared in a statement.

The Brightline train won federal approval Friday for the environmental impact of its planned phase between West Palm Beach and the Orlando International Airport, and the company said it would begin final design for the track improvements needed to build out that line.

All Aboard Florida already has nearly completed construction of track upgrades for the Brightline trains to connect West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami.

Service on that phase would begin in early 2018, company officials said.

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.

Opponents of All Aboard Florida charge finance meeting may violate Sunshine Laws

Indian River and Martin counties and Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida are seeking to delay and move Florida Development Finance Corporation consideration of financing for the All Aboard Florida train, charging that the meeting could violate Florida’s open meeting laws.

The two counties and CARE-Florida are opponents of All Aboard Florida’s plans to develop a private, high-speed, passenger train system from West Palm Beach to Orlando. They want the meeting delayed until they can receive and review meeting packets, and for the meeting to be moved from Jacksonville to somewhere within the rail route’s corridor, contending that holding the meeting 150 miles away could be prejudicial to the issue.

The Florida Development Finance Corporation has scheduled an emergency meeting in Jacksonville for 10 a.m. on Dec. 18

All Aboard Florida is seeking Florida Development Finance Corporation backing for the issuance of $1.15 billion in lower-interest, Private Activity Bonds to finance upgrades of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, and to construct new tracks from Cocoa to the Orlando International Airport. All Aboard Florida is preparing to launch its private “Brightline” passenger train service between West Palm Beach and Miami in a matter of weeks. The second phase of that project would, in a couple of years, run Brightline trains at speeds of up to 110 mph between West Palm and Cocoa, and up to 125 mph between Cocoa and Orlando.

Opponents, mainly in the ride-over counties of Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie, have fought against that second phase, arguing the trains would cause safety and environmental concerns with up to 32 trains a day crossing more than 100 at-grade street and road crossings and numerous canals and rivers at high speeds.

All Aboard Florida contends it will be meeting the nation’s highest rail safety and environmental protection standards.

Financing the second phase has been an issue; in 2016  the U.S. Department of Transportation withdrew its allocation for $1.75 billion in Private Activity Bonds, and allocated $600 million worth of the bonds only for the South Florida phase.

In a letter sent Thursday to William Spivey, executive director of the Florida Development Finance Corporation, Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold, Martin County Senior Assistant County Attorney Ruth Holmes, and CARE-Florida counsel Stephen M. Ryan charge that the emergency meeting in Jacksonville appears to them to be in violation of Florida’s Sunshine Laws.

“As the Florida Development Finance Corporation has not provided us with any agenda packet materials, we believe that any decision made by the FDFC must be postponed,” they wrote.

“Additionally, we respectfully request that the meeting be relocated to somewhere within the corridor of the proposed project. It is highly prejudicial to conduct a meeting concerning the issuance of $1.15 billion in bonds 150 miles from the closest point of the proposed project. This is highly suspicious considering the meeting is being conducted far away from the FDFC offices, which do lie near the location of the proposed project,” they continued.

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