Florida legislation would hobble Brightline expansion

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Brightline's second trainset, "Bright Pink," in West Palm Beach, Fla.
TALLAHASSE, Fla. — Bills introduced in Florida’s House and Senate would require the Florida Department of Transportation to create a new state bureaucracy “to regulate railroads where not federally pre-empted” — an effort which appears aimed at All Aboard Florida’s Brightline passenger service.

However, the proposals introduced in the last two weeks are not only at odds with Federal Railroad Administration’s jurisdiction over intercity passenger trains but also with established divisions of infrastructure responsibility between railroads and local governments.

The legislation, proposed by lawmakers representing the “Treasure Coast” area north of West Palm Beach, would add liability, funding, and reporting obligations for railroads operating trains above 80 mph, and give any community the ability to dictate train speeds through its town.

A “Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act” sponsor, Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R.-Vero Beach, said at a hearing of the state senate’s transportation committee that it was strictly a safety measure applying to all railroads in the state. But only All Aboard Florida’s proposed 110-mph service would surpass the 80-mph threshold. The Brightline service would use existing Florida East Coast tracks between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, Fla. — through Vero Beach, Fort Pierce, and Stuart — before trains to Orlando International Airport would head west on a grade-separated 125-mph right-of-way.

Rusty Roberts, vice president of government affairs for All Aboard Florida, charged at the hearing that the law is unconstitutional because it targets one company. In a statement to Trains News Wire, he says Mayfield “misled her colleagues” in saying that the bill would not transfer financial responsibilities from one party to another, “which is not true.”

Henry Flagler built the FEC into South Florida in 1895. Roberts says that over the ensuing decades, permission was given to build roads that crossed the tracks, “under the condition that costs of construction and maintenance of the roadways and safety apparatus remain the responsibility of the public, whom the roads benefit.”

He notes that All Aboard Florida made a commitment to bear the financial burden for the upgrades and safety improvements needed to allow 110-mph operation “in full compliance with all the latest and highest applicable (FRA) safety standards.”

Although some of these costs “are rightfully the obligation of the public under longstanding agreements,” Roberts tells Trains News Wire, “All Aboard Florida committed to pay for the necessary infrastructure required to upgrade the grade crossings on the corridor, which according to the existing crossing agreements would be the responsibility of the county. This includes [FRA] sealed corridor guidelines.”
Before Brightline service can begin, this crossing in downtown Melbourne, Fla., on the "Treasure Coast" will have to be modified with a second track and conform to FRA sealed-corridor requirements for 110-mph operation, regardless of the outcome of proposed Florida legislation.
Bob Johnston
The railroad helped agencies in Miami, West Palm Beach, and Broward County fund crossing improvements required to create quiet zones in the 79-mph territory on the first Brightline segment south of West Palm Beach by using its contractor and flagging crews “to realize a significant cost savings,” Roberts says. He adds that “All Aboard Florida has asked to work with municipalities and counties in the Treasure Coast on implementing quiet zones, but local authorities have said no.”

In part, the proposed Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act:

• Creates extensive monitoring responsibilities for the Florida Department of Transportation, requiring a new group of state inspectors who can “meet certain certification requirements” and “identify standards for conducting field surveys.”

• Demands the railroad construct and maintain fencing at locations where state DOT surveys identify “pedestrian traffic generators, such as nearby schools and parks, and signs of current pedestrian traffic that crosses the tracks” and arrange “at least one public meeting in each community before designs are finalized.”

• Holds the railroad liable for all damages resulting from failure to maintain a fence.

• Allows local governments to enact ordinances “regulating the speed limits of railroad traffic due to local safety hazards not statewide in nature and not capable of being adequately encompassed within national uniform standards.”

• Requires a railroad to maintain all public crossings entirely at its own expense within the right-of-way and adhere to the DOT’s applicable requisition and procurement procedures.

• Imposes reporting requirements and insurance sufficient to cover “any losses resulting from a reasonable worst-case unplanned release of liquefied natural gas.”

• Establishes fines of no more than $10,000 for each violation, with those funds going to the state’s transportation trust fund.

The act also demands that the railroad install positive train control with associated crossing health monitoring, already required by FRA regulations.

The proposed legislation must evaluated by community affairs and appropriation committees before both chambers can vote on it prior to the end of the current legislative session on May 5.

In a restructuring announcement earlier this month, All Aboard Florida signaled its intention to expand to Tampa and Jacksonville, and perhaps the intermediate Treasure Coast markets Brightline trains will initially bypass to and from Orlando. The legislation may test the desire of lawmakers outside the sponsors’ area to place more hurdles in front of a private company willing to build a system, particularly at a time when federal funding for public transportation is in question.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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