BRADENTON, Fla. — The Federal Railroad Administration released a draft environmental impact statement on the second phase of the new private passenger rail service proposed by All Aboard Florida.
The 522-page draft statement, released Friday for a planned brand-new 40 mile railway between Orlando and West Palm Beach, is a milestone in the environmental permitting process before pre-engineering, design and construction can begin.
This portion of the study also covers adding a second track along 128.5 miles of existing rail freight right of way between Cocoa and West Palm Beach on the east coast.
Members of the public now have 75 days to forward comments to the FRA. Comment review periods for environmental statements typically span 45 days, but a number of elected officials had asked for more time. Gov. Rick Scott sought a 90-day-review period.
Comments are due to the FRA by Dec. 3.
"Our role is to ensure compliance with federal environmental laws so that communities remain safe and experience as few adverse impacts from this project as possible," said a statement by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "That is why we are having a robust comment period to hear from as many people as possible before any other action is taken."
The review, required by the National Environmental Policy Act, is a prerequisite for All Aboard Florida to potentially win a $1.6 billion low-interest federal loan through the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program.
AAF, a venture of Fortress Investment Group-owned Florida East Coast Industries, which owns the freight railroad along most of the venture's right-of-way, has already applied for a RRIF loan. The company would not answer questions about other parts of its financing plan last week.
The FRA will also hold eight public information meetings in October and November.
Environmental permitting for the new private passenger rail services is being done in two parts.
The first leg of the rail service received environmental clearance in January 2013 with federal officials finding "no significant impact" on the proposed 66-mile southeastern coastal route between West Palm Beach and Miami.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation also notified planners in Palm Beach and Broward counties that their applications for $20 million in grants through the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program had been denied.
The grants were to be used for improvements at railroad crossings along the Florida East Coast right of way, though were not necessarily linked to All Aboard Florida.
Hundreds of rail crossings along the east coast will need to be upgraded because of All Aboard Florida, and the company adding the service has said that it will pay for some or all of those upgrades.
However, some communities along the route are balking at the plan because they could be required to pay for perpetual maintenance on the crossings.
Several anti-train groups have also surfaced to oppose All Aboard's east coast route, which would run through many densely populated and established business communities.