Call for safer railroad crossings could cost Brightline $300 million

Two Treasure Coast lawmakers on Tuesday called for new safety requirements for railway systems that could cost Brightline, the state’s newest high-speed passenger train operator, millions of dollars.

Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, and Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, say the state needs to set safety measures and require high-speed passenger rail operator All Aboard Florida’s Brightline to pick up the tab on crossing maintenance and upgrade costs.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

Those improvements should include four-quadrant gates and concrete medians, often called “sealed corridors,” to prevent motorists from driving around gate arms to cross tracks at all 350 crossings along the rail’s line from Miami to Cocoa, the lawmakers said during a Tuesday morning news conference also attended by Reps. MaryLynn Mager, R-Tequesta, Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, and Thad Altman, R-Rockledge.

While Brightline already has such crossing guards at some Palm Beach County crossings, such a requirement could add about $300 million in expenses for the company, with the per-crossing cost estimated at about $1 million.

Since Jan. 12, the day before the company began shuttling paying passengers, Brightline’s trains have hit three people, killing two. In all three incidents, police said those struck did not heed warning lights and crossing gates positioned at the intersections.

» RELATED: Watch video released by Boynton police of second Brightline fatality

Language that would require the sealed corridors is not actually in either Mayfield’s and Grall’s bills – SB 572 and HB 525, respectively — but Grall said at the press conference that it’s All Aboard Florida – not citizens – that should be paying the bill for the safety improvements.

“Private business…should not be able to put the costs of those improvements on taxpayers,” Grall said.

But Tuesday afternoon at a Senate Community Affairs Committee workshop, Brightline’s officials rebuffed several points in both bills.

Patrick Goddard, the railway’s chief operating officer, called the bill “legislative overreach” and said some of the language related to costs was unnecessary.

“We are actually picking up all the costs of capital improvements and maintenance,” he said.

The issue at hand is railway education and awareness – not safety measures, Goddard said.

“This bill would do nothing prevent the incidences that occurred last week,” he said.

Mayfield’s and Grall’s bills are backed by advocacy group Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida.

At the press conference, Brent Hanlon called the sharing of tracks by passenger and freight trains a “volatile mix” and said his group has for years petitioned railway “bigwigs” to improve safety but those requests have fallen on deaf ears.

“Enough is enough,” he said.

The House bill (HB 525) would require railway operators, not governments, to be responsible for the maintenance costs at crossings. Government would not share in that expense unless it consents in writing. Operators also would be responsible for the costs associated with improvements and upgrades at crossings on which the state does not use federal funds to eliminate hazards.

The Senate bill (SB 572) contains language similar to the House bill regarding costs. It also would create the Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act that establishes minimum safety standards for high-speed passenger rail, including the installation of approved safety technology that at a minimum must include positive train control, a technology that’s designed to prevent collisions.

The Senate bill also would require that before operating high-speed passenger rail, operators must install or realign crossing gates, equip all automatic public railroad-highway grade crossing warning systems with remote health monitoring technology, and construct and maintain fencing in areas identified by the state Department of Transportation.

At the press conference, Mayfield said her bill does not increase regulations for high-speed passenger train operators but instead asks the state Department of Transportation to evaluate the safety needs of each community along the railway to ensure the right safety measures are in place.

The bill also asks the department to increase awareness among citizens about a mode of transportation with which many citizens may not be familiar, she said.

“The goal here is to have the DOT enforce what the federal rail agency is recommending for the high-speed rail coming through the state of Florida,” Mayfield said.

But Brightline officials say the company already is in compliance with many of the requirements outlined in the bills and disputed the need to make the requirements law.

For example, the company has already begun to implement positive train control and will have it fully installed by the end of the year per its agreement with federal regulators, Goddard said.

Some of the proposed requirements actually conflict with federal regulations and run counter to the U.S. Constitution by singling out Brightline, said the company’s general counsel Myles Tobin.

Amtrak and CSX would be exempt, he said.

Saying that the proposed legislation would allow the state to ensure protocols are in place as Florida’s newest mode of transportation expands, Kate Pingolt Cotner, assistant county attorney for Indian River, countered Tobin’s assessment.

“This is not about Brightline, this is about high-speed rail,” she said.

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