- Jennifer Sorentrue Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
All Aboard Florida’s Brightline has won approval from federal transportation officials to extend its passenger rail service north to Orlando, clearing the way for the private rail venture to begin construction on its second phase connecting West Palm Beach and central Florida.
Brightline said it plans to begin construction on the northern extension early next year. On Monday, the company will ask a state financing group for permission to issue $1.15 billion in tax-exempt bonds to help pay for the second leg, a request that is facing opposition from Martin and Indian River counties and the Treasure Coast-based group Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida.
“This is the most critical and final step in the extension of Brightline’s service to Orlando, and we are excited to move forward with Phase 2,” said Dave Howard, Brightline’s CEO. “This was a great year for us as we completed construction on two of our major stations and rail infrastructure, successfully presold tickets and corporate packages to individuals and businesses throughout the region and priced $600 million in Private Activity Bonds to fund Phase 1. We look forward to launching service to Miami and starting construction north to Orlando in the first quarter of 2018.”
The federal approval comes as Brightline prepares to launch service between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
Brightline has said it plans to launch service by the end of 2017. But with just over two weeks left until the new year, the company has not announced its schedule or ticket prices.
“Brightline will announce the launch date for the start of introductory service between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach soon,” the company said in a news release Friday.
The Federal Railroad Administration in 2013 began the lengthy environmental review of Brightline’s second phase, including a new east-west stretch from Cocoa to Orlando. A final version of the environmental study was published in 2015, finding the best route for the passenger service would follow the Florida East Coast Railway north to Cocoa, where it would connect to a yet-to-be-build section of rail line that would carry trains to Orlando.
Federal officials, however, never issued a formal “record of decision” solidifying the study’s findings because Brightline dropped its push for a federal loan to help pay for the project.
That decision was issued Friday — four years after the start of federal review. The Federal Railroad Administration said it completed its review after All Aboard Florida renewed its application process for the federal loan.
Meanwhile, the Florida Development Finance Corp. has called an emergency meeting on Monday in Jacksonville to discuss Brightline’s $1.15 billion bond request, a move that is drawing fire from opponents of the rail project who argue that the public hasn’t had enough time to review the bond issue. Opponents have also questioned why the Orlando-based finance corporation is holding the meeting two hours away in Jacksonville.
The request comes less than two months after the financing corporation signed off on the sale of $600 million in tax-exempt bonds to help pay for private rail venture’s first phase connecting West Palm Beach and Miami. That decision also raised questions from opponents, who said they learned about the meeting 72 hours before the board’s vote.
“The health, safety and environmental issues regarding the railroad will be subject to judicial review,” said Steve Ryan, the Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida. The Department of Transporation’s “actions providing funding and rushing to authorize these bonds will be evaluated by the court.”
The Florida Development Finance Corp. is a special financing unit created by the state Legislature in 1993 to help businesses and nonprofit groups finance capital projects that promote economic development. The finance corporation acts as a conduit, issuing both tradition and tax-exempt bonds on behalf of borrowers.