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Florida senator says Brightline high-speed rail is not taxpayers' responsibility

MELBOURNE, Fla. - The Brightline tracks and signals have been tested, three new passenger terminals have been built with a fourth one near completion, trains are polished and ready to go and Floridians are eager to finally experience the future of travel by high-speed rail.

Despite Gov. Rick Scott turning down $2 billion in funding in 2011 from the Obama administration to create a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, super fast train service is about to make its debut in the Sunshine State.

All Aboard Florida, a wholly owned subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, has built Brightline, a new South/Central Florida rail line utilizing specially built diesel-electric locomotives and rail cars.

Tickets went on sale Thursday morning for scheduled service starting Saturday. On its first day open for business, the website reported "overwhelming excitement" and "site traffic delays."

Part of Brightline’s Phase I debuted last week on a “Friends & Family” run, taking a route from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale at an estimated 79 mph. When fully operational, service will extend from Miami to Orlando with speeds topping out at 125 mph.

But stops along the route are limited to just the two Brightline stations at Fort Lauderdale and West Palm. The Miami leg is expected to be ready this spring while the final stretch from West Palm to Orlando could, according to industry observers, take three or more years to complete.

Five years in the making

In 2012, All Aboard Florida floated the idea of creating a high-speed rail line between Miami and Orlando, with the possibility of expanding to both Tampa and Jacksonville. The key: AAF’s parent company, Florida East Coast Industries owned Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) and all of the 351 miles of tracks stretching from Miami to Jacksonville that went along with it.

Unlike what would have occurred if Scott had accepted the Obama money and built out a high-speed system, All Aboard Florida already had rights to the tracks, so their startup costs were much lower and could be privately funded with no cost to taxpayers.

Sort of.

State Sen. Debbie Mayfield (R-Melbourne) said All Aboard Florida’s Brightline trains will cost taxpayers. Specifically, more trains on the tracks means more maintenance, especially at rail crossings. When maintenance is done on public at-grade crossings, FEC passes all of those costs onto local municipalities, counties and the state.

“It’s inappropriate,” Mayfield said. “All Aboard Florida should bear the cost of maintaining the equipment they’ve installed to run their trains and not push that cost off on the taxpayer.”

On the same day News 6 met with Mayfield, she had just finished a meeting with a representative of one municipality that had recently received a $400,000 bill from FEC for track maintenance.

“That's a cost that a lot of the taxpayers don’t understand,” Mayfield said. “The railroad kind of just gives them a bill and says, ‘Here's your bill, this is what you owe us.’”

Mayfield told News 6 she wants to make sure maintenance and safety costs for Brightline and any other high-speed rail is not dumped on the taxpayers, who “receive no financial benefit from the rail system.”

SB 572, The Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Act, introduced by Mayfield and co-sponsored by state Sen. George Gainer (R) Panama City, is expected to be heard in Tallahassee this session.

The bill would require any company operating a high-speed passenger rail system in the state “to be solely responsible for certain maintenance, improvement and upgrade costs.”

Those areas include being accountable and repairing “railroad roadbed, track, and railroad culverts within the confines of the public street or highway,” and “streets or pedestrian grade crossings lying between the rails and for a distance outside the rails of one-foot beyond the end of the railroad tie.”

Mayfield’s office calculated that there are 349 at-grade public crossings between Miami and Cocoa affecting approximately one million taxpayers living in those areas.

“You know, when this train leaves Palm Beach it will not stop until it gets to Orlando,” Mayfield said. “So the train will just be coming through (those communities) without any stops.”

SB 572 also provides for a measure of regulation, mandating that any high-speed rail system in the state would fall under the regulatory jurisdiction of the Florida Department of Transportation (where the authority is not pre-empted by the federal government).

The bill’s final major component: safety.

If passed, the Florida Division of Emergency Management would need to offer special disaster training to municipalities along the train corridor.

Also on tap is an emphasis on safety measures including a “Train Brain,” or Positive Train Control Technology, designed to automatically slow down the speed of a train when it goes around a curve.

Mayfield said she was compelled to reintroduce the measure, which has failed twice before, following last month’s Amtrak train derailment in Washington State.

“I don’t want to wake up one morning and have the same issue they had in Washington State," Mayfield said. “I do not want to stop the train (project). I want to make sure that the safeguards are in place so that the citizens and visitors in our state are protected.”

The Brightline route between Miami and Orlando is 235 miles long with service between the two stations expected to take about three hours. The trains will reach a top speed of 125 mph.

High-speed trains are defined by being able to travel in excess of 155 mph on specially built lines (Category I), 124 mph on existing lines (Category II), or 124 mph on existing lines with lower speeds through urban areas (Category III).

Brightline’s Siemens-built locomotives and cars, called trainsets, are built in Sacramento and then hauled across country by rail to the Brightline maintenance facility in West Palm.

Brightline passengers have their choice of Smart and Select tiers; initial prices between Fort Lauderdale are $10 for the former and $15 for the latter.

Brightline uses the existing tracks of Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) between Miami and Cocoa. About 40 new miles of track will need to be built from Cocoa westward (along SR 528) to connect to Orlando International Airport to finish Phase II of the project. The 351 miles of FEC track stretching the length of the state on the eastern coast connects with both CSX and Norfolk Southern in Jacksonville.

When initially proposed in 2012, the privately funded venture had an initial estimated price tag of around $1 billion and was slated to be open for business in 2014.

Since then, the price has ballooned to nearly $3 billion with the entire project not expected to be completed for several more years.

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