Drop the lawsuits and let Brightline roll
By the year 2035, more than 25 million people will call Florida home. This growth will put tremendous pressure on the state’s transportation infrastructure and challenge our ability to safely and efficiently move people and goods from one region of the state to another. Rail transportation will play an increasingly important role in meeting the mobility needs of Florida residents, businesses and visitors.
All Aboard Florida has begun a privately funded express train service called Brightline that, when completed, will provide express passenger rail service from Miami to West Palm Beach, and then to Orlando. When completed, Brightline will pass through the Treasure Coast region of the state without any planned stops.
This has prompted local governments in the Treasure Coast region to pursue legal remedies in an attempt to derail Brightline. Federal lawsuits challenging the funding plan for Brightline have been filed, as have petitions challenging the proposed issuance of Environmental Resource Permits by water-management districts. The legal challenges mounted by Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties are costing taxpayers a considerable amount of money. Taxpayer money has funded outside legal counsel as well as numerous consultant and professional services. All told, these local governments have spent more than $6.8 million in their efforts to derail Brightline.
There is little to show for this expenditure. The federal lawsuits challenging Brightline’s funding have been dismissed. The U.S. Department of Transportation has approved an additional $1.15 billion allocation of private activity bonds. Furthermore, the final environmental permits required for the construction of the segment between Cocoa and Orlando had also been secured. Brightline has already begun its introductory service to Ft. Lauderdale from West Palm Beach.
Still, the legal challenges persist. The Martin County Commission voted to join Indian River County and renew their federal court challenge against Brightline. The Martin County Commission voted to set aside up to $350,000 of taxpayer money to pursue alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and challenge the recent U.S. Department of Transportation’s allocation of private activity bonds. The counties’ previous alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and challenges to the allocation private activity bonds to fund Brightline have not been successful. These taxpayer-funded legal actions call into question the wisdom of trying to stop Brightline, instead of working with All Aboard Florida to identify and mitigate the local governments’ concerns.
Despite the best intentions of local elected officials, to continue to spend taxpayer dollars in an effort to delay Brightline further or otherwise make it more expensive to construct and operate Brightline is not good public policy.
A major point of contention is that, when completed, Brightline will speed through the Treasure Coast region with no planned stops. Under existing agreements, local governments will continue to bear the financial responsibility of maintaining highway-grade crossings and making needed safety and other improvements. On the surface, it appears that the counties are getting the short shrift, but that just tells part of the story.
Brightline will divert an estimated 1.5 million passengers annually from other modes of transportation and, in so doing, will decrease harmful emissions and improve overall air quality and safety. Brightline is projected to create 1,100 new jobs that will generate $294 million in labor income through the year 2021. The direct economic benefit to the state because of Brightline is projected to exceed $915 million.
Florida needs projects like Brightline, projects that meet public needs using private dollars. Brightline is part of a larger statewide strategy to reduce congestion on Florida’s highways and increase the mobility of business travelers, Florida residents and tourists. In return, Treasure Coast residents will enjoy reduced traffic congestion and improved air quality, increased economic income and job creation, and improved health and safety. That should be enough.I encourage local officials to take the gloves off, shake hands with All Aboard Florida, and start looking for ways to resolve this dispute instead of continued litigation. Florida taxpayers deserve nothing less.