Brightline permits for Orlando expansion get OK; Tampa is next target

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Brightline will have to deal with this thick vegetation along the Beachline Expressway to build its 125-mph route to the Orlando airport.
Bob Johnston
The broad median of Interstate 4, shown in 2010, could be the route of a Brightline expansion to reach Tampa, Fla.
Bob Johnston

MIAMI—Highways are proving to be the Trojan horse facilitating passenger train expansion for Florida’s Brightline — first to Orlando, then Tampa.

Last month, Orange County commissioners greenlighted an environmental permit allowing Brightline to begin building a 125-mph corridor through 106 acres of thick brush and wetlands immediately adjacent to the Beachline Expressway east of Orlando International Airport. The 22-mile route through Orange County will connect with soon-to-be upgraded Florida East Coast Railway tracks at Cocoa, Fla., about 130 miles north of Brightline’s current northern terminus of West Palm Beach, Fla.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs told the Orlando Sentinel, “To make public transportation work, there are times when you have (environmental) impacts.” Mike Cegelis, Brightline’s executive vice president of rail infrastructure, says building next to the existing highway “is the path of least resistance.” He confirmed to the Sentinel that construction will begin later this year, and says trains will begin running by 2021.

Meanwhile, the broad median of Interstate 4 that transportation planners protected from highway lane encroachment is the likely path to Brightline’s next destination.

An unsolicited proposal in March 2018 by Brightline to the Florida Department of Transportation suggested the state create a mechanism for private developers to lease the median of I-4 and portions of either state routes 528 or 417 between the Orlando airport and Tampa. On June 22, Florida Gov. Rick Scott did just that, announcing a request for proposals to lease the property and construct a rail line.

Although other operators could theoretically bid during the 120-day period, Brightline’s airport station is already finished [see “Brightline blazing new trails,” June 2018 Trains] so it clearly has the inside, if not only, track.  

“We are currently engaged in the process,” Brightline President and COO Patrick Goddard confirmed in a statement, “which is the first step needed to extend the system to the Tampa Bay region.”

Plans to utilize the broad I-4 median have figured in studies, multiple commissions, statewide referenda, and near starts dating to 1982. The most recent effort, for a high speed rail route, ended with Scott’s rejection of $1.25 billion of federal stimulus funds in 2011, despite the fact that eight consortia bidding on the project had agreed to assume the revenue risk.

A number of engineers involved with those companies now work for Brightline, including Executive Vice President of Rail Infrastructure Adrian Share. Construction challenges and possible station locations were thoroughly analyzed back in 2010 and earlier, but Brightline is not expected to reveal specific plans until its proposal is accepted. The company’s focus remains on first completing the West Palm Beach-Orlando airport “Phase 2” segment.

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