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House panel pulls high-speed rail bill, Brightline takes victory lap

A House committee abruptly postponed its vote Tuesday on a proposed bill regulating high-speed passenger trains like All Aboard Florida’s Brightline, raising questions about the future of the legislation.

The bill, HB 269, was to be taken up by the Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee during a morning meeting, but Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, announced in the final minutes that it had been “temporarily postponed.”

RELATED: Brightline tests to resume on tracks with two trains in April

Drake gave no explanation for the last-minute postponement. The subcommittee is not scheduled to meet again during this year’s legislative session.

It’s unclear what will happen to the bill, which would require high-speed rail companies such as All Aboard Florida to install safety features and pay for fencing along sections of its tracks where pedestrians could be at risk. Rep. Marylynn Magar, R-Tequesta, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said Tuesday she planned to continue to work on the legislation.

RELATED: Grupo México to buy Florida East Coast Railway

Magar said she spoke with Drake before Tuesday’s postponement, adding that moving forward she planned to focus on train safety measures and any financial burdens that the high-speed rail projects could place on local governments.

“I wouldn’t be so quick to call it a victory,” Magar said Tuesday. “I think it’s just a matter of making sure that the policy is right.”

A companion bill filed in the Senate — SB 386 — cleared its first hurdle earlier this month, winning support from the Senate’s Committee on Transportation.

That bill’s next stop is Senate’s Community Affairs Committee.

The bill would establish minimum safety standards for high-speed rail, including the installation of 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.

In a statement released after Tuesday’s postponement, Brightline’s Vice President of Government Affairs Rusty Roberts took aim at the regulations. He pointed to concerns raised by Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed policy group, County Commissioner Steve Abrams, and other government leaders around the state saying the “overwhelming input” was making “an impact” on the bill.

“We have been saying this bill is not about safety but an attack against private property rights and is targeting our company,” Roberts said. “Legislators are comprehending these facts, and we are appreciative.”

Brightline officials have said the bill would not only threaten the expansion of the company’s service, but could also could jeopardize the future Coastal Link — Tri-Rail’s planned expansion its system along the Florida East Coast Railway corridor. The Coastal Link commuter rail project would run through coastal downtowns from Miami to Jupiter.

Brent Hanlon, chairman of Citizens Against Rail Expansion, also known as CARE FL, said the group was “disappointed” that the bill wasn’t taken up Tuesday, but said it would continue its fight to block Brightline’s passenger trains.

“All Aboard Florida is taking a victory lap today in its public statements, but its latest actions are nothing more than a special interest group flexing its political muscle in a desperate attempt to protect its profits which are reliant on taxpayer subsidies, Hanlon said. “ We will continue to advocate for legislation that puts public safety first and we know that our elected leaders want the same. This is nothing more than an ill-conceived rail project by a private company that wants to shift costs to the taxpayers.”

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.

Brightline’s first two trains - named BrightBlue and BrightPink for the color of the passenger cars — arrived in West Palm Beach this year.

Three more trains are expected to arrive in South Florida by May, Brightline officials said. The third train to arrive will be called BrightGreen.

Brightline announced this month that it plans to launch passenger service between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in late July. Service between Fort Lauderdale and Miami is scheduled to start in late August, the company said.

Eventually, Brightline plans to expand service north to Orlando. Track work for the second phase of the project, which runs between West Palm Beach and Orlando, has not yet begun.

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