A bill called the “Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act,” wending through the Florida Legislature, hit a roadblock Tuesday morning when it was pulled from the agenda of a House subcommittee. That’s a good thing because the bill is misnamed. It should be the “Stop Brightline in Its Tracks Act.”
The legislation is aimed, of course, at the soon-to-debut high-speed train service formerly known as All Aboard Florida, which is either a harbinger of a better transportation future or, as many see it on the Treasure Coast, a monstrous intrusion of noise, traffic delays and potential safety hazards.
Senate Bill 386, co-sponsored by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, is yet the latest attempt by Brightline’s opponents, mostly in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties, to prevent the railroad from streaming through their communities. The private venture, part of Florida East Coast Industries, aims to connect downtown Miami to Orlando International Airport by a revolutionary three hours by train. Its first phase — West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale — is scheduled to begin in early summer, stretching to Miami in August.
Look, everyone is for safety: for passengers, for cars that cross the tracks and for pedestrians who might wander onto the right of way. But from a safety standpoint, this particular bill is a redundancy.
It wants the Florida Department of Transportation to needlessly “regulate” things already regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration. Brightline has already committed itself to safety measures stated in the bill, including Positive Train Control, vehicle detection, quad gates and other improvements needed to bring the line to “sealed corridor” status, and probably “quiet zone” status.
On the other hand, the bill would add enough complications that it would certainly stall, and quite possibly, kill, the planned next phase of the route, from West Palm Beach to Orlando, Michael Reininger, CEO of Florida East Coast Industries, told The Post Editorial Board last week. That leg was supposed to begin in 2018, a date no longer considered realistic.
For example, the bill would mire Brightline in layers of discussion about … fences. The law would dictate that fences along the tracks must be 4.5 feet high and be “ornamental” within “urban areas,” but can be chain-link “outside urban areas.” If that were not picayune enough, the railroad must hold at least one public meeting in each community before designs and plans for “new or substantially modified fencing” are finalized.
This is a prescription for months of haggling in order to put up a safety feature that, actually, may not be so safe at all; some studies have concluded that a fence can turn into a hazard if a trespasser is caught inside the track area with no way to escape when a train is fast approaching.
Then there’s the requirement making the railroad company solely liable for all repair and maintenance of streets and pedestrian grade crossings where train tracks intersect. But at least in Martin County, roads were built over existing FEC rails. According to the deals made then, the county reimburses the railroad for keeping the public roads in good shape. If this bill becomes law, you can bet that Brightline will steam into court.
Luckily, the bill’s true intent is becoming increasingly evident. Although it passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee on March 14, its House counterpart was pulled Tuesday morning from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee’s meeting agenda.
Nobody knows, of course, whether Brightline’s attempt at creating a profitable city-to-city train service can succeed. The modern history of passenger rail in the United States doesn’t augur well. But Brightline executives are taking a visionary approach, betting that their train service — ultra-modern, comfortable, internet-connected, fairly priced — will tempt just enough people out of their cars and away from traffic-choked I-95 to pay off.
We hope so. If Brightline succeeds, our local economy will benefit and so will the environment. And if Miami-Orlando proves a winner, there’s talk of extending high-speed service to Tampa and Jacksonville.
It would be shameful if opponents cripple this line before it ever gets a chance to show what it can do.
This is the latest attempt by Brightline’s opponents to prevent the railroad from streaming through their communities.