- Jennifer Sorentrue Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
It may just be a mile or so, but it could be a pivotal mile for the state’s long-desired high-speed train link to Central Florida.
A slight shift in the way All Aboard Florida’s Brightline trains will maneuver through a single interchange along its 235-mile route could slow the company’s plan to extend its passenger service north to Orlando, potentially requiring a more extensive federal review before construction can begin on the much anticipated leg.
Brightline initially planned to run on a new section of track along east-west State Road 528, or Beachline Expressway, crossing over Interstate 95 in Brevard County. The design, which was included in a 2015 federal environmental study of the project, required a series of costly bridges to carry trains over the interchange’s on and off ramps.
Brightline later shifted its route just south of those ramps, a change that requires fewer bridges and lessens construction costs, but brings the tracks closer to a nearby neighborhood, according to design plans submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the company’s permit application.
That southern shift, although minuscule in the grand scheme of the project, could be large enough to require federal officials to re-open their environmental review of the route, a move that could lead to more delays and give nearby residents new avenues to challenge the train service, experts say.
“They have made a private decision for their own economic benefit,” said Steve Ryan, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing Citizens Against Rail Expansion, also known as CARE-FL, a group that has been fighting the Brightline project. “When you aren’t honest with people, when you don’t treat them with transparency, someone is going to end up with a train in their backyard.”
A Federal Railroad Administration spokeswoman said Thursday that the agency is currently analyzing the change “to determine what impacts it may have.”
In a statement issued Thursday, a Brightline spokesperson said the company continues to work on the extension between West Palm Beach and Orlando.
“Brightline is working with all the necessary federal agencies on the Phase 2 extension,” the spokesperson said.
By the end of the year, Brightline plans to launch passenger service on the first leg of its route from West Palm Beach to Miami. Construction has yet to begin on the second phase of the project, which will connect West Palm Beach and Orlando. A high-speed rail link from South Florida to Orlando has long been a coveted Florida transportation link, even prompting the passage and repeal of a constitutional amendment more than a decade ago.
The 235-mile Brightline route will run on Henry Flagler’s historic Florida East Coast railroad corridor before branching off to a new, yet-to-be constructed set of tracks between Cocoa and the Orlando International Airport, which houses Brightline’s northernmost station. Airport officials have said it will be late summer or fall 2020 before Brightline’s trains reach that station.
The Federal Railroad Administration in 2013 began a lengthy environmental review of Brightline’s second phase, including the new east-west stretch from Cocoa to Orlando. At the time, the company was pursing a $1.6 billion federal loan to help pay for the project. The loan request is what prompted the need for the federal environmental review.
A final version of the environmental study was published in 2015. It found the best route for the train service would keep Brightline’s tracks roughly 100 to 200 feet south of State Road 528 in Central Florida, and included a map showing the tracks running through the I-95 interchange ramps.
Federal officials, however, never issued a formal “record of decision” solidifying the study’s findings because Brightline dropped its push for the loan.
Instead, the company said it planned to sell $1.75 billion in tax-exempt private activity bonds to fund its second leg. Despite several attempts, the company was not able to find buyers for bonds and the sale was shelved.
In an April letter to federal officials, Brightline CEO Dave Howard said the company planned to renew its push for the loan. Howard wrote that Brightline intended to “submit promptly” a new loan application, adding that it planned to use the proceeds to complete its service between Miami and Orlando.
In August, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Transportation said no formal loan application had been received.
Should Brightline continue its pursuit of the federal loan, Ryan argues the route change is significant enough to force federal officials to complete a supplemental environmental review of the project. That process would allow nearby homeowners to comment on the changes, potentially opening the project up to delays.
“The question is, what else about their plans don’t we know?” Ryan said. “All of that needs to be evaluated.”
The Federal Railroad Administration said it is still evaluating whether the change is significant enough to require a supplemental review.
Jack Swearingen, a 78-year-old Cocoa resident who owns an acre of land near the interchange, said he learned of the rail project after a limited liability company began buying neighboring homes and lots to build the new tracks.
Two of the three lots surrounding Swearingen’s land are owned by Brevard County Property Holdings, a Delaware company. The address for Brevard County Property Holdings, as listed on some property records, would place it in the same Coral Gables building as Brightline’s parent company, Florida East Coast Industries.
Swearingen said he was approached about selling his property, but didn’t think the offer was high enough.
Although Swearingen said he isn’t bothered by the trains, he is concerned about the value of his property, which he hopes to give to his son one day.
“I’m upset about the value going down,” he said.
Dawn Andersen, a Merritt Island resident who also owned land in the neighborhood, said a private investigator approached her at work about selling the property. She agreed to meet with a group representing Brevard County Property Holdings.
“They told me they wanted the property for the train,” she said.
Andersen said she agreed to sell a vacant piece of land to the company, but only if it also bought a neighboring parcel with her home on it. The developed property, which was owned by an estate, was in foreclosure at the time.
Andersen said she signed closing documents for the vacant site. The company never contacted her about buying the house, despite several phone calls, she said.
Brightline did not respond to questions about its relationship with Brevard County Property Holdings. Jim Shindell, a Miami-based real estate attorney listed on some of the company’s property records, could not be reached for comment.
Before it can construct its second phase, Brightline also needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Nakeir Nobles, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps, said as part of Brightline’s permit request, property owners with land adjacent to the route received a notice in the mail directing them to an online site where they could get more information about the project, including route maps.
The corps, she said, is still in the process of evaluating the permit request. A decision on the application has not been made.
Meanwhile, Brightline continues to prepare for the start of its service between West Palm Beach and Miami.
On Tuesday, the company announced that the fifth and final train need to run the company’s first leg is on its way to West Palm Beach.
The BrightRed train, named for the coloring on its passenger cars, left a Siemen’s manufacturing plant in California on Tuesday. It will travel 3,052 miles of rail before arriving in West Palm Beach in the coming days.