Florida Transportation Officials Place Brightline Under the Gun

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

Brightline is under renewed pressure to complete negotiations with several Florida entities by July 31 before it can secure approval for a proposed expansion to Tampa.

The private-sector passenger railroad, which operated on Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC) track in South Florida until the pandemic hit, faces these issues:

“Central Florida’s SunRail commuter system needs to be in agreement, the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) needs to give Brightline space along its toll road system, and approvals need to be granted to use a coal-train rail spur near the Orlando International Airport,” Railway Age Engineering Editor and Railway Track & Structures (RT&S) Editor-in-Chief Bill Wilson reported March 3. 

“According to Florida transportation authorities, this is the last chance for Brightline to make it happen,” Wilson reported. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) “is amenable to one final extension of the negotiations,” Assistant Secretary for Strategic Development Brad Thoburn wrote in a March 1 letter to Brightline President Patrick Goddard (download letter below). FDOT set the deadline at July 31. 

FDOT spokesperson Alecia Collins told Railway Age that negotiations with Brightline had been suspended and summarized the letter’s content, saying that it “extends the negotiations period to July 31, 2021, and establishes a framework—including timeline, deliverables and milestones—to advance discussions and avoid the need for future extensions.”

According to FDOT, this is the sixth request for an extension of lease negotiations for Brightline to build a rail line in a highway right-of-way. But those negotiations were halted March 27, 2020, after Gov. Ron Desantis issued an executive order stopping Brightline’s and other such processes around the state, due to the pandemic. Two days before that, Brightline suspended its trains between downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach (see map above). The railroad has continued construction on its extension to Orlando Airport, which is now reported to be more than half-finished. After trains start running on that segment, there are plans to open a new station at Disney Springs to serve Walt Disney World. Brightline has also announced plans to build new stations in Aventura, Boca Raton and Port Miami (the first two would be infill stations on the existing line), and is in discussions with Miami-Dade County authorities to establish local service there.

Next Stop: Tampa?

“We appreciate the efforts by FDOT and are excited to move forward a new rail corridor that would connect Central and South Florida,” Brightline Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs Ben Porritt told Railway Age. “Tampa represents a growing region of our state and we are excited to be part of its future.”

Still, “the corridor preferred by Brightline comes with multiple overlapping issues,” reported Kevin Spier in the March 2 edition of the Orlando Sentinel.  The chief issue is Brightline’s proposal to lease a right-of-way from FDOT and CFX. They are separate authorities, and each owns portions of the highways where Brightline plans to build. 

Some of FDOT’s requirements are straightforward and have been under discussion before: obtaining a resolution from the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission (which owns SunRail, the local passenger railroad in the Orlando area, and which would share tracks with Brightline to the airport and possibly to Disney), and getting a resolution of continued support from the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (which owns the airport). Local reports indicate that these negotiations are going well. Brightline must also update the process with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), secure any further permission required from that agency, and submit plans for review at the 15%, 30%, 60% and 90% progress points.

Brightline may also face the unusual requirement that, in effect, it must compensate the expressway authority for lost toll revenues, due to anticipated diversion of motorists onto Brightline trains. According to the FDOT letter, Brightline must also: “agree that Brightline will submit a ridership and toll diversion study and analysis with updated traffic and methodology and documentation acceptable to CFX and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise” and “agree to the method that will be used for Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) and the Department to recover any loss of toll revenue due to the construction and operation of the Brightline system.” In addition, Brightline must agree to a Lease Valuation in accordance with the required study.

CFX spokesperson Brian Hutchings denies that Brightline will necessarily be required to pay such compensation. He told Railway Age it will be a topic of discussion as talks move forward, but “nothing is set in stone or mandated.” CFX Executive Director Laura Kelley said in a prepared statement: “I am excited about Brightline’s progress to complete their route from Miami to the Orlando International Airport. Projects such as this give our community more mobility options as our region grows. CFX is looking forward to continuing conversations with Brightline on future expansions of express rail service as we strive to build a world-class transportation system here in Central Florida.” 

While it is unclear if Brightline will have to compensate the agencies that own the highways, the possibility of it appears to raise some policy issues, both in terms of transportation and the environment. If rail travel benefits the environment as rail advocates and some government officials claim, does it constitute an anti-environmental policy to require Brightline to compensate the highway authorities for lost toll revenue? Also, is it a reasonable policy to penalize a private-sector passenger railroad for competing on a small scale with a state-owned highway? 

There are also issues of how any anticipated “lost toll revenues” would be calculated. Not only would it be necessary to forecast Brightline ridership, but also to distinguish between motorists who would otherwise use the highway and pay the toll, and visitors and local non-motorists who would not make the trip on the highway. There is an additional issue that should be considered: What economic impact would Brightline service have on the Tampa area, and how much newly induced demand would a more-robust local economy spurred by the railroad deliver for additional highway trips?  

Despite the FDOT requirements, Brightline management remains optimistic about the railroad’s ability to meet them. If Phase I of Brightline’s overall plan is the South Florida operation that ran between Miami and West Palm Beach before the virus hit, Phase II is the segment to the Orlando Airport now under construction, and Phase III is the future expansion to Disney Springs and Tampa—the only part of the plan that the new requirements would affect. Management hopes to restore the Phase I operation by the end of this year and complete Phase II sometime next year. 

On March 4, Brightline reported that Mike Reininger is the new CEO of Brightline Holdings. He served as President and Chief Development Officer of the railroad company from 2012 until 2018, and was instrumental in getting Phase I started, according to Brightline. In the announcement, Brightline reiterated the planned extension to Tampa, so management remains undeterred by FDOT’s new timeline.

So it looks like Phase I is coming back, and Phase II is coming next year. We will know more about Phase III in less than five months.   

Tags: , , , ,