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Pedestrian deaths and environmental concerns threaten Florida's high-speed train project

It launched to a fanfare two weeks ago: the first privately funded US express passenger railway in decades, a new start for long delayed plans, and a “green” alternative to Florida’s increasingly congested highways.

Yet for executives of Brightline, an ambitious $3bn venture that will eventually ferry travellers from the theme parks of Orlando to the beaches of Miami in just three hours, the champagne moment soon lost its fizz.

Even before passengers left the station at Fort Lauderdale on opening day, a pedestrian was struck and killed at a road crossing by a Brightline train meant to showcase a high-speed link to journalists and dignitaries. Two further crossing strikes in the next seven days, one of them fatal, reignited a contentious safety debate, even though the victims had all passed barriers.

Now, with environmental concerns also lingering over the final construction phase of the 235-mile line, from Palm Beach county to Orlando, lawmakers are seeking greater oversight of the private railway. One US congressman, Brian Mast, has called to shut down work altogether, pending an inquiry, and US senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio are demanding a federal review.

“It’s terrible PR,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation and a former White House transport adviser.

The controversies threaten to overshadow what was meant to have been a new beginning for mass transit in Florida. Train projects had stalled for decades, most recently in 2011, when governor Rick Scott killed a proposed rail link from Tampa to Orlando, ended hope of a statewide high-speed rail network.

Florida East Coast Industries, the real estate and transportation giant behind Brightline, and its subsidiary All Aboard Florida, which operates the railway, have enthusiastically pushed the project. Both have stressed what they say are the environmental benefits of Brightline’s low-emission, diesel-electric trains.

According to the company, the trains will mean three million fewer cars on the roads, improving air quality in cities, and providing millions of tourists and commuters a more comfortable, speedier and less costly alternative to flying or driving.

Best of all, supporters said, the railway – which FECI has promoted as funded and operated entirely by private money – uses about 200 miles of its own existing freight line, from Miami to Cocoa.

That means minimal new construction or land clearance, apart from widening the trackbed for a second lane, upgrades to crossings and signals, and a final 40-mile, cross-country leg inland, from Cocoa to a new hub at Orlando airport, a stretch expected to be operational by 2020.

To Brightline’s opponents, the shared freight line poses one of the projects biggest potential environmental hazards, especially in cities that trains will travel through at speed.

“The freight trains carry hazardous and very dangerous commodities: ammonia, chlorine gas, LNG [liquefied natural gas], deadly farm chemicals, anhydrous ammonia, all routinely moving on the line at an average 33mph,” said Steve Ryan, attorney for Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (Care-FL). The group is challenging an environmental impact statement issued by the federal railroad administration (FRA) that projected no significant adverse effects.

“There’s very dangerous things on those trains, and they’re proposing to do a ballet where 32 passenger trains, travelling as high as 110mph, are going to be weaving in and out of the slower moving freight trains,” he said. “The possibility of trains contacting trains exists, and obviously vehicular and pedestrians coming into contact can cause derailment.”

Ryan’s group also rejects Brightline’s estimate that it would remove three million vehicles from area roadways.

“The traffic estimates they’ve made are nonsensical. Nobody believes them,” he said. Referring to Brightline’s recent application for a $1.6bn loan, in case a planned sale of $1.1bn in private equity bonds fell through, Ryan said: “If the market believed it, they would have been able to obtain the money in the private sector to do this, and wouldn’t need government subsidies and bonds.”

Several counties along Florida’s so-called Treasure Coast have also sued Brightline, whose trains will run nonstop through their territory, between West Palm Beach and Orlando. None of the lawsuits, including one from Martin County seeking to halt the project citing “damage to neighbourhoods and environmental resources”, have been successful.

“What they’ve been trying to do with the various lawsuits is typical ‘not in my backyard’ stuff,” said Poole, the transportation analyst. “They’re throwing anything they can think of to gum up the works and increase the cost to the point where maybe they’d think the company would give up because it’s not worth the litigation.

Poole said that every construction project entailed “some environmental effects”, but that the almost $7m spent by counties has failed to derail Brightline, merely “caused difficulties and delays”.

“For small county governments without huge populations, that’s a lot of taxpayer money,” he said. “To continue to spend in an effort to delay Brightline further or otherwise make it more expensive to construct and operate Brightline is not good public policy.”

Brightline declined the Guardian’s request for an interview. Instead it provided a list of safety upgrades it said it was planning to the line to Orlando.

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