Report Offers Ideas amid Continuing Brightline Debate

Light rail  AP Photo

A Treasure Cy oast lawmaker plans to again pursue more state oversight of private high-speed passenger rail service, as Florida analysts have outlined a number of steps lawmakers could take.

Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Rockledge, said an Oct. 31 report from the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability backs concerns expressed by critics of the new Brightline service in South Florida that the state Department of Transportation wasn’t using its authority to regulate high-speed rail.

“The key issues they identified were the same issues addressed in the high-speed passenger rail bill that I introduced last year,” Mayfield said. “Specifically, that the Florida Department of Transportation has the authority to provide oversight of safety regulations for the railroads.”

Among the state analysts’ ideas are setting up an independent regulatory body to oversee railroad safety in Florida; updating rules on state-of-the-art railroad crossings and corridors; requiring a multi-jurisdictional law enforcement effort on trespassing enforcement; establishing “harsher” penalties for people caught trespassing on grade crossings; and conducting a review of statewide suicide prevention activities.

“FDOT lacks an analytical methodology for determining which crossings should be consolidated and where strategic investment should be made,” the report by the agency known as OPPAGA said “The methodology should have a component that would consider impacts on traffic congestion.”

For the past two legislative sessions, Mayfield and other Treasure Coast lawmakers have unsuccessfully pushed for support from outside their region to impose state rules about passenger trains, particularly Brightline, which is operated by All Aboard Florida.

The 159-page OPPAGA report was undertaken as governments and residents in northern Palm Beach County and across the Treasure Coast have been embroiled in a multi-pronged legal battle against Brightline’s planned West Palm Beach-to-Orlando expansion.

In expressing concerns for safety, officials and local media have highlighted deaths that have occurred over the past year along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks used by Brightline’s passenger trains.

Another lawmaker who has sponsored the legislation is Rep. MaryLynn Magar, a Tequesta Republican who was recently named as a top lieutenant to incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who will lead the House during the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions.

Brightline announced Friday a new partnership that will lead to the service being rebranded Virgin Trains USA.

Asked earlier about the study, Brightline released a statement saying it was committed to safety.

“Safety is Brightline’s top priority, which is why we’ve worked closely with the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration), FDOT and all local jurisdictions along the railway corridor on designing, engineering, constructing and operating the system,” the Brightline statement said. “We remain committed to working with FRA and FDOT to increase funding for more education and awareness.”

The report came as All Aboard Florida, which operates the passenger service between Miami and West Palm Beach, was the only company to submit a proposal to the Florida Department of Transportation to develop passenger-rail service along Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando.

The company’s Orlando-to-Tampa proposal is going through the department’s procurement process, with the bid publicly available Nov. 28.

In June, Brightline acknowledged it was pursuing the Orlando-to-Tampa route after it was publicly outlined by Gov. Rick Scott, who in 2011 turned down $2.4 billion in federal funds for a Tampa-to-Orlando bullet train. Scott cited cost overruns on rail projects in other states for his 2011 action.

Brightline President and Chief Operating Officer Patrick Goddard has called the Tampa Bay market a “natural extension” for the service, which bills itself as the nation’s first privately funded “intercity” rail system.

In addition to its Florida plans, the company intends to put down tracks between Las Vegas and Southern California.

Officials from Martin and Indian River counties have brought lawsuits against the service and earlier this year opposed the U.S. Department of Transportation giving Brightline until the end of the year to sell $1.15 billion in tax-exempt “private activity” bonds for the expansion to Orlando.

Among the state analysts’ ideas:

— Direct the Florida Department of Transportation to administer a committee that works with local governments, communities, and railroads on safety issues.

— Consider new regulations for high-speed rail that include a review of the process to certify new passenger rail lines, minimum grade-crossing design standards, fencing requirements along railroad corridors and guidelines for sealed corridors.

— Grant greater authority to railroad security officials to address trespassing along the tracks and establish harsher penalties for trespassing.

— Consider using the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Health to determine whether statewide suicide-prevention activities could be used to greater effect.

— Review funding for rail safety at the state and local levels.