Can the Treasure Coast coexist with Brightline passenger rail? We shall see

From FEC Railway

After several years of false hope — fueled primarily by bureaucratic delays at the federal level and the rail company’s inability to secure financing — two huge pieces of the puzzle recently fell into place for Brightline.

First, Brightline suddenly found buyers for the private-activity bonds it had been trying to peddle the past two years.

Earlier this month, investors lapped up $600 million of these tax-exempt bonds, which can be used by nonprofit organizations and some private companies to fund projects deemed to have a public benefit. Brightline will use the proceeds from the bond sale to help finance Phase 1 (Miami to West Palm Beach).

What spurred investors’ interest in the bonds? Speculation that Congress might do away with private-activity bonds as part of President Donald Trump’s tax reform proposal.

Second, Brightline obtained final federal approval for the rail project.

Within the past few weeks, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued final approval for the West Palm Beach-to-Orlando section of the project (Phase 2). Known as the record of decision, it declared the rail company’s plan for Phase 2 complies with the National Environmental Policy Act.

This, in turn, allows Brightline to proceed with its application for a $1.6 billion federal loan.

“This is the most critical and final step in the extension of Brightline’s service to Orlando, and we are excited to move forward with Phase 2,” said Brightline CEO Dave Howard in a news release.

He also noted the company looks forward to “starting construction north to Orlando in the first quarter of 2018.”

Can the Treasure Coast coexist with Brightline?

We shall see.

Our region is going to get really LOUD unless local officials take steps to pursue quiet zones. These are federally regulated safety upgrades — i.e., four-quadrant gates, raised medians and other channelizing devices — that restrict vehicles and allow trains to speed through crossings without sounding their horns.

To help facilitate our coexistence with the passenger rail service, local governments should turn their attention to the 75 at-grade crossings in our three-county area. There are 30 in Indian River, 25 in Martin and 20 in St. Lucie.

Installing quiet zones at critical crossings would mitigate the punishing noise pollution residents who live near these intersections can expect when Brightline trains begin running through our region.

The rail company has said it will begin limited service between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in the next few weeks. In preparation for the launch, it has been running simulated service with 10 daily round-trip trains, each one blaring its horn at crossings.

Residents of some West Palm Beach neighborhoods already are fed up with the noise, according to a report by WPTV. The noise will end in some areas once quiet zones have been constructed and approved. But that could take months.

Currently, there are 18 quiet zones in Florida, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The vast majority are on CSX track in South Florida.

There are no quiet zones, yet, on the Treasure Coast.

The clock is ticking.

Brightline’s plan is eventually to run 16 daily, round-trip passenger trains between Miami and Orlando. That’s a lot of horn honking. No train stops are planned for our region, though Fort Pierce officials initiated discussions with Brightline this summer to secure a train stop in the Sunrise City.

Over the past four years, officials in Indian River and Martin counties earmarked or spent more than $6 million to block the rail project. We can now call this what it is — a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money.

It’s time to invest taxpayers’ money in something tangible that will actually benefit Treasure Coast residents: quiet zones.

And we’ll all cross our fingers no one is killed or injured when Brightline trains begin zipping through our region.

 

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