A proposed bill regulating high-speed trains could delay the second phase of All Aboard Florida’s Brightline project and impact the cost of moving freight across the state, rail companies warned a House panel this week.
The Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee spent about an hour listening to a group of rail experts and government officials weigh in on the bill, dubbed the Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act. The bill would create statewide rules requiring high-speed rail rail operators to install and pay for certain safety upgrades.
The committee took no action on the legislation.
All Aboard Florida General Counsel Myles Tobin told the subcommittee that if approved, legal questions surrounding requirements in the bill could delay Brightline’s second phase between West Palm Beach and Orlando.
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 miles per hour between Miami and West Palm Beach; 110 miles per hour between West Palm Beach and Cocoa Beach; and 125 miles per hour between Cocoa and Orlando.
Service between Miami and West Palm Beach is expected to start this summer.
“There are so many aspects of this statute which are subject to litigation challenge,” Tobin said. “They will have to be resolved if this statute is passed and that will further delay the process.”
The bill, filed last month by a group of Treasure Coast lawmakers, would establish a series of new requirements for high-speed rail, including the installation Positive Train Control and Remote Health Monitoring safety technology. The features are designed to help stop a train if the engineer falls ill or a crossing gate malfunctions.
“This is an issue that is very important to the local governments, the citizens of the Treasure Coast, and the state of Florida as a whole,” Kate Pingolt Cotner, Assistant County Attorney in Indian River County told lawmakers on Wednesday. “Two of our most important concerns are safety and cost, and what we are looking to do is collaborate with the state to address these issues.”
Under the bill, high-speed companies would also be required to pay for safety upgrades at intersections where the road crosses the train tracks.
“Because you are going to be running trains at 110 miles per hour, this is a risk that doesn’t exist now, and this is something that everyone needs to be concerned about,” said George Gavalla, a rail safety consultant for Martin and Indian River counties. “What we are seeking are the same protections that exist on similar rail lines in other states.”
Rail crossing gates typically malfunction at a rate of about 5 percent a month, Gavalla said.
FEC officials said crews test signals at every crossing once a month in an effort to prevent malfunctions.
Bob O’Malley, Florida Government Relations & Community Affairs for CSX Transportation, waned the bill would add to the cost of moving freight on the FEC line, and could ultimately impact the amount of cargo that gets sent to ports in South Florida.
Even the slightest increase in cost could cause ships to skip Port Miami and Port Everglades and head to Savannah, Ga. instead, O’Malley warned.
Some companies may could decided to abandon rail and send cargo to South Florida ports by truck - a change that would add hundreds of vehicles to already overcrowded Interstate 95, he added.
“It is important to consider the unintended consequences of this bill,” O’Malley said.
Treasure Coast officials, meanwhile, argued local governments are being asked to pick up the tab for certain safety improvements related to the Brightline project.
“We bare none of the benefits of having rail come through the community, but we are paying for safety concerns,” said Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Hobe Sound, who filed a a companion bill in the House. “We have children, mothers with children, people walking along this area. It is just a disaster waiting to happen with that situation without proper fencing.”
Martin County Fire Rescue Division Chief Daniel Wouters said crews are delayed as many as 140 times a year at rail crossings. Increasing the number of trains at those crossings will only add to the delays, he told lawmakers.
Freight trains on the FEC line currently operate at speeds of between 35 and 40 miles per hour, although they trains are capable of moving up to 60 miles per hour, Robert Ledoux, Florida East Coast Railway’s Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary told state lawmakers on Wednesday.
Tobin said, if approved, the bill would add tens of millions of dollars to Brightline’s price tag.
The fencing requirements alone would cost as much as $65 million, Tobin told the subcommittee. The company would have to spend $6 million a year maintaining the fencing, he added.