Lawsuit Seeks to Derail Florida Passenger Train Project

(CN) – Opponents of the nation’s only privately-funded passenger rail service sued federal transportation officials this week, seeking to derail an expansion of the project linking West Palm Beach to Orlando.

Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida joined two Florida counties to file the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration in D.C. federal court on Tuesday. The complaint claims federal transportation officials did not follow administrative and environmental laws when approving $1.15 billion in bonds for All Aboard Florida’s Brightline venture, a high-speed train that would connect Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando.

The rail opponents say the federal agencies did not sufficiently assess the project’s environmental impacts and risk to public safety, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Instead, they acted as its cheerleaders,” the complaint states, “deferring to [All Aboard Florida] as to the scope of the environmental analysis, the range of alternatives to be considered, and the mitigation measures” before approving the tax-exempt bonds.

The 94-page complaint details a myriad of concerns with up to 32 trains per day rumbling through Indian River and Martin counties, both plaintiffs in the suit, at high speeds. Traffic congestion, noise, property devaluation, boat back-ups at bridge crossings and public safety risks at the 59 at-grade road crossings top the list.

“If you look at the number of deaths and injuries along this line, there is a profound safety problem,” Steve Ryan, lead attorney on the case, said in a phone interview.

He referenced Department of Transportation statistics showing 108 deaths and 185 injuries over the last six years along the existing freight rail corridor. The final environmental impact statement released by the Department of Transportation lists fewer fatalities because it drew its count from 2007 to 2011 instead of more recent years.

Already, the new Brightline trains have killed four people – two pedestrians during a trial run and a driver and bicyclist after starting regular service in January.

Last week, Senators Marco Rubio, Republican, and Bill Nelson, Democrat, met with Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to discuss the accidents. The Florida senators have called for an investigation and more safety regulations. The state Legislature has proposed two bills that would force Brightline to pay for extra rail safety measures. After the latest deaths, Brightline sent employees to busy crossings to educate the public on rail safety.

According to the complaint, three out of the five counties in the rail project’s path did not formally approve the route. Officials from Indian River and Martin counties worry about the impact of the rail on their largely rural communities.

This lawsuit is the latest attempt by rail opponents to wreck Brightline, which began limited service between West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale in January. Ever since the rail announced its plans in 2012, citizen groups and some county officials have questioned the wisdom of a train moving through densely-populated areas at speeds up to 110 miles per hour, while also deriding the effects of rumbling trains on historic downtowns and conservation areas.

But past lawsuits have gone nowhere. Last May, U.S District Court Judge Christopher Cooper dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by the citizens’ group and two counties, ruling the issue moot after the Department of Transportation withdrew its earlier 2014 approval of $1.75 billion in bonds. The federal agency then split the bond proposals, approving $600 million in November for portions of the line between West Palm Beach and Miami and $1.15 billion in December for the line extending to Orlando.

But rail opponents saw a silver lining in that ruling – because Judge Cooper did say the amount of bonds in relation to the total cost made the rail project subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, which the Department of Transportation earlier disputed. The latest lawsuit builds on that premise by contending the federal agencies rushed through the environmental review before approving the bond request.

“Martin County feels strongly that the federal government rubber-stamped a high-speed train route through historic and environmentally sensitive areas of Martin County, ignoring viable alternative routes just to maximize profits,” Martin County attorney Sarah Woods said in a statement.

“This is the seventh lawsuit Treasure Coast counties have filed in order to stop a privately funded transportation project that is critical to Florida’s growth,” a Brightline spokesperson said in a statement. “The anti-progress vision of the Treasure Coast has already cost taxpayers $7 million. Apparently, there is no limit to how much more taxpayer money they will waste.”

Though widely opposed by residents of Martin, Indian River and St. Lucie counties, Brightline has many supporters in Miami and Orlando. U.S. Representative Darren Soto, D-Orlando, has publicly praised the project as “a model for cutting edge high-speed transportation technology” and a boon for jobs and tourism.

Rail opponents also question why the federal government issued the bonds in the first place. The tax-exempt bonds, known as private activity bonds, must fit into special use categories such as airports, wharfs and solid waste facilities. The lawsuit claims Brightline is not technically a high-speed intercity rail facility – one of the accepted categories – and the Department of Transportation’s classification of the bonds under “highway or surface freight transfer facility” is also not acceptable. The complaint notes only a small portion of the funds go to any uses pertaining to this category, which would include road crossings.

“It’s a joke that they claim if they spend one dollar on an intersection of a road … they can then bond out the whole railroad project,” Ryan said.

Ryan, who is with the D.C.-based firm McDermott Will & Emery, laughed at the claim that Brightline is privately funded. The state of Florida and the Federal Aviation Administration are paying for the Orlando International Airport terminal, he noted, while local communities will be responsible for maintaining many of the road crossings.

“It is a publicly funded enterprise,” he said. “It equates to crony capitalism of the worst order.”

All Aboard Florida is not named in the suit.

The Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration did not respond to requests for comment.

 

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