BRADENTON, Fla. — Two Florida counties can move forward with the first lawsuits ever to challenge a private activity bond allocation from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In a 39-page ruling late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper sided with Martin and Indian River counties, both of which objected to the USDOT's award of $1.75 billion in private activity bonds for the All Aboard Florida passenger train project.
The planned passenger trains would pass through the two counties on their route between Miami and Orlando.
Cooper said that the counties proved that the bond allocation should have been considered in a federal environmental review process. He denied motions to dismiss the case by the USDOT and All Aboard Florida.
"Martin County is very pleased with the decision and believes that the public will have more information as a result of the court action than they've ever had before about the project," said Stephen Ryan, a partner with McDermott Will & Emery LLP, which represents Martin County.
Cooper said that the counties had legal standing to proceed with their challenges because they demonstrated that the $3.5 billion train project likely will not be built without tax-exempt financing — a reversal from a decision in June 2015.
Cooper said information produced during discovery raised "legitimate questions" about All Aboard Florida's commitment to completing the second phase of its project, from West Palm Beach to Orlando, without the use of private activity bonds.
"First of all, PAB-based financing is not just the 'current financing plan' for the project - it appears to be the only financing plan," Cooper wrote. "This strikes the court as unusual given the uncertainty surrounding the PAB issue, particularly for a company that has expressed its concern" about keeping the project on schedule and avoiding losses due to delays.
Cooper said the issue "casts some doubt as to whether AAF is truly serious about moving forward with phase 2 of the project regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit."
"It also indicates that AAF may have simply assumed that alternative financing would be available," he said.
The ruling is a "really significant victory," said Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold.
He said that information the counties produced in discovery convinced the judge to change his mind about whether AAF needed bond financing for Phase 2 of the project.
"The judge told us we have standing, and we met that burden," he said.
USDOT referred questions to the U.S. Department of Justice, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
All Aboard Florida did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
AAF, which is owned by Fortress Investments Group, is attempting to create a privately funded and operated passenger train service, the nation's first in decades.
Private financing is in place for its first phase, linking Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, where stations are under construction, according to court documents.
In Phase 2, Martin and Indian River counties have cited potential harm to public services and archaeological sites from 32 planned high-speed trains daily in separate suits filed in the District of Columbia.
Both cases contended that USDOT's December 2014 allocation of bonds should have been considered as part of federal agency reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.
USDOT and All Aboard Florida argued that the approval of private activity bonds was not a major federal action that would trigger a NEPA review.
The judge disagreed.
Cooper compared the benefits of the $1.75 billion PAB allocation with a $1.6 billion low-interest loan that All Aboard Florida applied for from the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program.
Under federal rules, the RRIF loan is considered a major federal action that triggered a NEPA review, although AAF has not completed the loan process.
"In the court's view, then, if the amount of federal assistance conferred by the RRIF loan can support a finding of major federal action, so too can the amount of federal assistance conferred by the PAB-allocation decision," Cooper said.
Cooper also said the fact that USDOT, as a condition of receiving the PAB financing, required All Aboard Florida to comply with an "extensive" list of mitigation measures imposed by the final environmental impact statement indicated that USDOT had "the requisite degree of control called for by NEPA and related statutes so as to implicate major federal action."
Cooper refused to dismiss claims by the counties that the bond allocation violated NEPA, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Department of Transportation Act.
"I see this as a big game changer as to where this case proceeds," Reingold said.
Ryan and Reingold said they would confer on the next stage of the litigation, which could be a trial or a ruling on summary judgment.
All Aboard Florida has said it plans to begin the first phase of train service - which it has branded as "Brightline" — next year.
The company tried and failed to privately place the unrated, uninsured bonds after the Florida Development Finance Corp. agreed to be the conduit issuer last year.
The company blamed the tight bond market, as volatility increased and high-yield investor demand dried up in the months before the Fed increased the borrowing rate 25 basis points in December.
The delayed sale led the USDOT in December to grant AAF an extension of time to issue the bonds and agree to allow the debt to be sold in multiple offerings, rather than issuing all $1.75 billion at one time.
In Tuesday's ruling, Cooper examined difficulties AAF had issuing the PABs as part of his analysis about whether the company could avail itself of other types of financing.
AAF's first tried to sell the PABs in August at an interest rate of 6% for a single tranche of up to $1.75 billion, Cooper said, adding, "AAF found that it could not sell all its PABs at that rate on the terms it wanted."
In September, deal was structured at a higher 7.5% interest rate with bonds in two tranches, one for $1.35 billion and the other for $400 million.
"Again, there was insufficient interest from investors for AAF to close on the sales on AAF's terms," Cooper said.
In November, after issuing a third supplement to the offering memorandum, AAF kept the projected interest rate at 7.5% but added additional terms "that were arguably more favorable to investors," he wrote.
"Each time [AAF] was either unable to conclude a deal or chose not to do so, depending on whose framing of the issue one prefers," Cooper said. "Either way, the fact remains that the AAF project repeatedly did not generate sufficient interest to result in a sale of all bonds at the 7.5% rate."
All Aboard has argued that it would use other forms of financing for the project, including taxable bonds, but the judge was skeptical of its ability to do so.
"It strikes the court as reasonable that a full sale of the PABs would require an interest rate of at least 8% in the present market, which would bump the interest rate for taxable bonds into the range that AAF acknowledged is unacceptable."
A banker familiar with the PAB deal, who asked not to be identified, said he was told that AAF decided to postpone the offering until all legal issues were cleared up.
All Aboard Florida has until Jan. 1 to issue the bonds, according to the USDOT.
In a statement Wednesday, CARE FL, a local anti-train organization, said that although AAF claims that it is a privately funded project the court ruling proves that AAF is dependent on public support from the tax benefit provided by allowing tax-exemption on its bonds.
The group's steering committee chairman, Brent Hanlon said AAF would travel through heavily populated Treasure Coast areas and require residents to bear additional financial burdens and safety risks.
"We especially applaud the Martin County and Indian River Board of County Commissioners and legal teams for their leadership and steadfast commitment in the fight against AAF," Hanlon said.