As All Aboard Florida’s Brightline prepares to launch service between West Palm Beach and Miami, a proposed bill regulating the company’s passenger trains and similar high-speed rail projects cleared its first hurdle on Tuesday, winning the support of a Senate committee.
The decision came as All Aboard Florida officials said the company is set to start construction early next year on the second phase of its project connecting West Palm Beach and Orlando. Introductory service between West Palm Beach and Miami is set to begin by the end of the year, although the company has not released its price structure or its train schedule.
“Brightline is going to be launching service very, very soon,” Brightline’s Vice President of Government Affairs Rusty Roberts told members of the Senate’s Committee on Transportation, who took up the bill on Tuesday. “We are very exciting to finally after five years of planning to get the first phase of this program off the ground.”
The bill (SB 572) would require rail companies operating trains at speeds in excess of 80 mph, including the Brightline project, to install safety features, cover the cost of maintaining rail crossings, pay for fencing along sections of its tracks where pedestrians could be at risk, and help train first responders in the event of an accident involving passenger trains or hazardous materials.
Brightline officials have opposed the legislation, arguing it unfairly targets their project.
Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation is not designed to target a single rail operator.
“There is no doubt that we are going to have high speed rail coming through the state,” Mayfield said at Tuesday’s meeting. “The idea is to set this in place and in motion so we aren’t coming back trying to fix a situation that we have.”
Brightline plans to run as many as 32 trains a day between Miami and Orlando on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. The company’s trains are expected to reach speeds of up to 79 mph between Miami and West Palm Beach; 110 mph between West Palm Beach and Cocoa Beach; and 125 mph between Cocoa and Orlando.
Freight trains on the FEC line currently operate at speeds of between 35 and 40 mph, although the trains are capable of moving up to 60 mph, officials have said.
Roberts argues the bill has little do to with safety, and instead is centered on derailing the private rail project. He pointed to the company’s lengthy legal fight with Treasure Coast officials over the sale of tax-exempt bonds to help pay for the project’s second leg.
“It is about three counties along the east coast who do not want any increase in rail traffic,” Roberts said of the bill.
Brent Hanlon, chairman of the Treasure Coast-based Citizens Against Rail Expansion, also known as CARE FL, said the regulations proposed in the bill are “desperately needed.”
“Residents of the Treasure Coast region have repeatedly expressed concerns about the ill-conceived All Aboard Florida rail project that will allow 32 trains to crisscross through pedestrian communities at high rates of speed,” Hanlon said in a prepared statement released by the group. “How can we expect school children, pedestrians, motorists and first responders to navigate through all this additional high-speed rail traffic?”
State lawmakers considered a similar bill during last year’s legislative session, but it was abruptly postponed before a final vote.