Soon-to-be Virgin Trains lays groundwork for Tampa extension

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All Aboard Florida’s Brightline is laying the groundwork to offer passenger train service from Orlando to Tampa.

Brightline, which will be rebranded as Virgin Trains next year, received approval Wednesday from the Florida Department of Transportation and the Central Florida Expressway Authority to negotiate leasing the rights of way it needs to extend passenger service 88 miles between central Florida and the west coast.

The company operates trains between Miami and West Palm Beach, and has yet to begin construction of its planned extension to Orlando.

Most of the Tampa line leasing will be for 62 miles in the median of Interstate 4, which FDOT has preserved for rail. The route was already study by federal agencies, which approved an environmental impact statement in 2009.

Details about Brightline’s latest project were laid out in the company’s Nov. 7 lease proposal to FDOT and the expressway authority. It indicates that Brightline will rely on equity, private activity bond financing, and a Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan to finance the extension to Tampa, as it plans to use using for the 170-mile West Palm Beach to Orlando segment.

Brightline President Patrick Goddard said the company looks forward to developing the infrastructure for the Tampa extension, and working with FDOT and the expressway authority.

“This is an exciting next step in our efforts to expand intercity passenger rail in Florida,” he said. “By connecting Florida’s major economic centers, Brightline provides a safe, efficient and productive way for residents and tourists to travel the state.”

On Nov. 16, Brightline announced the strategic partnership and trademark licensing agreement with British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Virgin has taken a minority stake in the company.

Brightline’s trains and stations will be renamed Virgin Trains USA next year. Virgin Trains is also planning an initial public offering.

The partnership between Brightline and Virgin coincides with work Branson’s group is doing to develop its first cruise venture in south Florida.

At Port Miami, Branson’s Virgin Voyages is planning to homeport a new 2,750-passenger vessel year-round, beginning in the spring of 2020. The ship, called the Scarlet Lady, is under construction. Planning is also in the works for a second Virgin cruise ship to homeport in Miami in the fall of 2021.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade County Commissioners will be asked to approve a memorandum of understanding giving Virgin Cruises Intermediate Limited the right to negotiate to build a new cruise terminal.

The MOU will allow the port and Virgin to develop a project timeline, financial commitments, and construction details with the goal of completing the terminal in time for launch of the Scarlet Lady, according to information for Tuesday’s meeting.

Cruise passengers from across the state, and vacationers who fly in from out of state, often drive or take cruise buses to sail from Port Miami, which calls itself the Cruise Capital of the World.

Completion of Brightline’s passenger train project from Miami to Tampa will provide an alternative way for cruisers to travel across the state. The route will be bookended by cruise ports.

Brightline’s proposal to lease rights of way for the latest extension shows the company plans to locate a station in downtown Tampa, which is near Port Tampa Bay and its cruise terminals.

Brightline has completed the first phase of its project and passenger service is operating the 67 miles between Miami and West Palm Beach, financed in part with $600 million of PABs allocated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The tax-exempt bonds were sold in December 2017 to qualified institutional investors by the Florida Development Finance Corp., as the conduit issuer.

The company has until Dec. 30 to sell another $1.75 billion of PABs, which will also be issued by the FDFC to qualified investors. The bonds will finance portions of the second phase between West Palm Beach and Orlando International Airport.

The West Palm Beach-to-Orlando segment is estimated to cost $3.7 billion, according to information posted on the USDOT's website under information about RRIF loan applications.

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