The private owners of Florida’s new passenger train service are gearing up for a major expansion, as opponents of the project along the east coast continue to pursue a federal legal challenge.
Brightline, which is being constructed by parent All Aboard Florida, has submitted a proposal to the Florida Department of Transportation to lease the right of way for a third phase, the 86 miles between Orlando and Tampa.
Brightline this year began running regular service on its 66-mile first phase between West Palm Beach and Miami, but it has yet to lay the tracks it will need to bring trains into Orlando for the second phase.
The submission required the FDOT to issue a request for proposals allowing other companies interested in building an intercity passenger train system along the same right of way to compete for the lease.
“We are currently engaged in the RFP process, which is the first step needed to extend the system to the Tampa Bay region,” Brightline President Patrick Goddard said in a statement. “As one of the nation’s fastest growing regions, Tampa Bay is a natural extension for Brightline.”
Goddard said residents, visitors and the state’s economy will benefit from a fully connected passenger rail system that includes Brightline’s current operations in South Florida to its “future line to Orlando.”
Brightline would not comment further on its Orlando-to-Tampa proposal, and has not said how much the segment will cost to build or how it plans to finance it.
The company has already received the largest amount of federal private activity bonds allocated to a single project by the U.S. Department of Transportation, a total of $1.75 billion.
To date, USDOT has allocated $11.04 billion of the $15 billion in PAB capacity Congress authorized it in 2005 to distribute for transportation projects, according to its website.
The company submitted what the state considers “an unsolicited proposal” March 26 seeking to lease portions of Interstate 4, State Road 528, State Road 417 and other roads owned by FDOT and the Central Florida Expressway Authority.
“This is an exciting opportunity for Orlando, Tampa and our entire state,” Gov. Rick Scott said June 22, when he unveiled Brightline’s proposal.
Scott said the state has begun “an open, transparent procurement process” for interested private entities to participate in.
Scott also said shortly after being elected to his first term in 2011, he rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds to develop a high-speed rail project in the same corridor, saying it was too risky.
“Instead of placing taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, our goal is for the private sector to invest in this project,” Scott said. “Through private investment, we ensure that this major project has zero financial risk to Florida taxpayers.”
Scott, who is termed out of office at the end of the year and is seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, didn’t explain why it took two months to announce the RFP process after receiving Brightline’s proposal.
He is in a heated campaign against the long-time Senate incumbent, Democrat Bill Nelson, who criticized Scott for turning down the federal funds in 2011.
The RFP requires interested parties to address plans for constructing, operating and maintaining passenger rail service from Orlando to Tampa “at no cost to the owners of the right of way.”
Responses are due by 3 p.m. Nov. 7, and will be opened the same day.
Michelle Maikisch, spokeswoman for the Central Florida Expressway Authority, said her agency also received Brightline’s proposal and agreed to participate in a joint procurement process with the FDOT as the lead agency. The process is not binding on the CFEA, she said.
The Orlando-based CFEA has worked with All Aboard Florida to implement an easement agreement along other roads it owns between Orlando and Cocoa on the east coast, where new tracks will be laid as part of the Brightline's second phase.
The second phase, which hasn’t begun major construction work yet, runs 168 miles between West Palm Beach and Orlando International Airport.
It is the subject of a federal lawsuit that was filed in February by Martin County, Indian River County, Indian River County Emergency Services, and Citizens Against Rail Expansion or CARE.
The litigants are attempting to block the issuance of $1.15 billion of private activity bonds allocated to All Aboard Florida by the U.S. Department of Transportation to finance portions of Phase 2.
Project opponents claim the USDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration worked with AAF to violate federal environmental laws.
The complaint contends that USDOT and FRA violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to “take a hard look at [AAF’s] environmental impacts, rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives, and identify all reasonable means to mitigate the harms from the project.”
The second phase of the project would pass through Martin and Indian River counties along the east coast at speeds over 100 mph. No stops are planned there.
County officials have said a myriad of safety and environmental problems were not considered during the NEPA review process.
All Aboard Florida has intervened in the case. Motions for summary judgment are due by July 18.
The case number is 1:18-cv-00333-CRC. It is pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and assigned to Judge Christopher R. Cooper.
CARE, a community organization along an area known as the Treasure Coast, said Tuesday that it has begun its annual Florida “candidate report card” for the elections this year.
Candidates at all levels of government are being asked to answer a dozen survey questions about AAF’s Brightline project, said Jane Feinstein, chairman of the group’s initiative.
“For the past four years, we have worked closely with elected leaders, business leaders and first responders in this region to educate the public on the negative impacts of the All Aboard Florida/Brightline high-speed train,” said Feinstein, who added that the report card will provide voters with more information about the candidates and their positions on the project.
Brightline’s first 66.5-mile phase between Miami and West Palm Beach was financed partly with $600 million of federal tax exempt PABs issued by the Florida Development Finance Corp. in December. Scheduled revenue service to Miami begain in May.
AAF plans to offer 32 round trips daily at speeds up to 125 miles per hour in some areas on trains that offer amenities such as wireless Internet service, food and alcoholic drinks.
The more than $3.5 billion project is owned by Florida East Coast Industries LLC, which eventually plans to extend the service to Jacksonville.