Brightline receives hostile reception in congressional hearing

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With U.S. Route 1 overhead, a Florida East Coast train crosses the single-track bridge at Stuart, Fla., where Brightline trains will run when the service expands to Orlando.
Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — In a hearing regarding Florida's Brightline passenger service, a congressman claimed Thursday that only highways and freight transfer facilities, not passenger rail improvements, qualify as surface transportation projects eligible for the type of bond financing that the U.S. Department of Transportation has approved to help fund Brightline's extension.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Government Operations, made that point during a hearing held on a day when Congress was not in session, and therefore without most other committee members attending.

Brightline received approval to sell $1.15 billion of the private-activity financing bonds, which are tax exempt to investors and thus lower the interest rate that the issuer has to pay, to help install federally-required safety upgrades along the route.

Brightline President and CEO Patrick Goddard and Grover Burthey, the Department of Transportation’s deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy, were sharply questioned by Meadows and Reps. Brian Mast and Bill Posey, two Florida Republicans representing constituents living along Brightline’s West Palm Beach-to-Orlando “Phase 2” expansion.

During a 2-hour session, the three lawmakers stated their belief the bonds were not legal, arguing that communities shouldn’t have to pay to maintain upgraded highway crossings after Brightline initially installed them, and again cited safety concerns regarding 110-mph trains along the route. During their subsequent questions to Goddard and Burthey, the trio — especially Meadows — interrupted the witnesses’ answers more than 100 times.

Three witnesses critical of Brightline — former American Airlines chairman Robert Crandall, representing the Citizens Against Rail Expansion group; Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold; and Martin County Fire Rescue Chief Dan Wouters — received more cordial receptions. They cited arguments made by the two counties, which have spent more than $9 million of public funds in legal efforts to block Brightline construction north of West Palm Beach. That’s more than the $8.2 million Reingold said Indian River County would need to maintain the crossings through 2030.

Regarding the issue of funding grade crossings, Goddard reiterated that easement agreements initiated when communities sought to cross existing Florida East Coast Railway tracks were still valid. Rep. Mast argued that the maintenance arrangement applied to FECR but not Brightline. Burthey said that he had been instructed by DOT attorneys not to comment on the issue, because “the overlap of FECR and Brightline is the subject of litigation.”

 Meadows promised to schedule a follow-up hearing in the next 45 days.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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