Editorial: Allow Brightline to issue tax-free bonds for next expansion

In 2000, Florida voters approved a high-speed rail project connecting Miami to Tampa with a 53-percent majority, only to see then-Gov. Jeb Bush embark on a four-year campaign to kill it. He succeeded in 2004 by frightening voters into thinking it would be too costly.

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott followed suit by turning down $2.4 billion in funding from the Obama administration to build an 85-mile, Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail line based on an unproven claim that cost overruns related to the proposed line could leave Florida taxpayers stuck with a $3 billion tab.

Today, a handful of Florida congressmen are questioning whether All Aboard Florida’s Brightline high-speed passenger rail project that plans to connect Miami to Orlando by 2021 meets federal requirements to qualify for tax-free financing.

This war on high-speed rail needs to stop — or at least come up with a better argument.

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In the case of Brightline, it is private not public money being put at risk. And less than two weeks ago, the private rail line carried its first paying passengers between West Palm Beach and Miami — marking the completion of its first phase. Before construction begins on the West Palm Beach-to-Orlando leg, Brightline wants to issue another $1.15 billion in “tax-exempt, private activity bonds” to help pay for it. Indeed, Brightline has already sold $600 million in private activity bonds to help finance the first leg.

The bonds are designed to help developers finance infrastructure projects by giving them access to tax-exempt interest rates — lowering their costs.

While opponents of the Brightline project allege the bonds amount to a taxpayer subsidy, Brightline officials argue rightly that neither taxpayers nor federal, state nor local governments would be on the hook for the money if the project failed.

But neither taxpayer risk nor the project’s viability are what some federal lawmakers are questioning here.

RELATED: Rubio questions Brightline’s use of tax-exempt bonds

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, in an April 24 letter sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation, said “it is not clear” whether Brightline’s express trains meet the federal requirements to qualify for the bonds. “I urge the Department of Transportation to provide clarity as to the standards applied to determine tax-exempt funding mechanisms.”

Rubio’s inquiry was followed last week by a group of five congressmen — including two Republicans from the Treasure Coast, Brian Mast and Bill Posey, where opposition to the rail service has been most vocal — asking the DOT to suspend its approval.

“Failing to do so compromises the integrity of the entire (private activity bond) program, and we cannot support what amounts to blank-check authority for this program,” wrote Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations.

Their objections boil down to not liking that federal transportation officials labeled Brightline a “surface transportation project,” under the federal designation of highway, to qualify it for a piece of the $15 billion set aside for private activity bonds to pay for transportation projects, including “high-speed trains” that move up to 150 mph.

We understand lawmakers asking for clarity. But that’s not what this is truly about. It’s just the latest wrench opponents are trying to throw into Brightline project, having failed with environmental and safety questions, specious concerns about the federal deficit and lawsuits.

RELATED: Brightline’s inaugural West Palm-to-Miami trip draws crowd, celebration

Another group from Congress wrote a rebuttal letter, warning that “financing programs created by Congress with the express goal of encouraging private investment in projects that serve a public purpose are under attack by certain interests.”

This group, which includes U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, calls Brightline “transformative” and a “project of national and regional significance.”

Brightline has its issues, to be sure. The Post has reported extensively on fatal accidents on tracks, delayed quiet zones and trains still seeking riders. But as evidenced by the recent opening of the Miami station, the project is plowing forward.

Its chances for success, though, hinge on finishing the West Palm Beach-to-Orlando leg. It doesn’t make sense to derail that. Not when Florida is so close to realizing the potential of high-speed rail. Not when the state’s clogged highways are only getting more so. And not when our infrastructure needs are so great.

The train has already left the station, so to speak. Time for Florida to stop making excuses, get on board and see how far this train goes.

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