AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Florida NIMBYs Can’t Stop America’s First Private High-Speed Rail

In Mar-a-Lago’s backyard, a fast new train and millions of dollars in transit-oriented development are reshaping the landscape.

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Inside a massive West Palm Beach garage, sleek yellow and silver train cars outfitted with high-tech controls and plush leather seats sit and wait. Manufactured by Siemens in a new California plant and owned by All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of one of Florida’s oldest real estate, infrastructure and rail companies, the train doesn’t look like anything the United States has seen before. It isn’t. When the custom-built, high-speed “Brightline” coaches start running later this year, they will be the nation’s first privately run trains in more than 30 years — and the first ever in a new generation of fast, privately operated U.S. rail.

All Aboard Florida’s $3 billion Brightline express train is a bet on a denser, more connected and less car-addicted Florida — and a bet on a growing international industry that the U.S. has long lagged behind on: private high-speed rail. It will provide the first direct transit connection between downtown Miami and the region’s other two largest cities, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach (Tri-Rail stops at the Miami Airport), since the 1960s. In a part of South Florida that has long been the Sunshine State’s densest corridor with more than 6 million residents and a seasonal flow of tourists, the new rail service promises to cut commutes between Miami and West Palm by an hour or more. Brightline supporters say the train could take as many as 3 million cars off the road.

The rail could be a game-changer for transportation in the region and is already reshaping the urban landscape along its planned 240-mile route. Beyond shortening commutes and simplifying travel, it promises to drive hundreds of millions of dollars in new developments with sleek high-rise condo, shopping, dining and office destinations rising next to each Brightline station. And despite years of opposition by wealthy suburbanites, the passenger train is expected to connect to Florida’s very biggest tourist destination, Orlando, by 2020, transforming an arduous trip from Miami into a fast three-hour jump.

With a similar private rail project underway in Texas and another public high-speed commuter rail project moving forward in California, Brightline is a first test for a long-awaited U.S. foray into high-speed rail, and in particular, a case study in how to defeat a highly motivated and very deep-pocketed group of NIMBY opponents.

“On a national level, the scale of impact could be enormous. It’s a proof of concept for private financing corridor-based infrastructure,” says Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. “There is major back-to-the-future element of this project too. Transit systems, most notably in Europe and America in the 19th century, were often developed by land holding companies and that is what is happening in Florida right now. And there is a major argument to be made that if you want to get more private financing into infrastructure markets, that’s the way to do it.”

A Bet on Transit-Oriented Development

Brightline was born in the ashes of President Barack Obama’s stymied attempt to build a national high-speed rail network — a lower-emission, higher-tech rival to the interstate highway system. Obama put $8 billion in federal stimulus funding behind his vision, hoping to give states the incentive to compete for federal transportation grants that would seed the system. That didn’t work, and in 2011, after Florida Governor Rick Scott killed plans for a public high-speed rail connector, All Aboard Florida’s parent company, Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), stepped up.

Since the late 1800s, FECI has owned the region’s eastmost train tracks, on which it ran freight and passenger trains. From the train stations along Florida’s Atlantic Coast sprung West Palm, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and smaller towns between. The last passenger train ran along its tracks in the 1960s. With attention focused on state plans for a publicly operated rail corridor running from Tampa to Orlando, FECI launched a feasibility study for running fast trains along its fallow tracks to the south. With the public project dead, the state was able to approve some public support for the project, including the company’s right to sell $1.75 billion in municipal, tax-free bonds. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties have additionally set aside more than $12 million for upgrading rail crossings.

In addition to the bond revenue, All Aboard Florida plans to invest about $700 million in equity into the project and generate about $300 million annually in ticket sales. FECI hopes its initial investment will return revenue generated by real estate development around the stations. With a strategy modeled on profitable private high-speed-rail projects in Japan, the company is building more than 800 high-priced rentals at its Miami station and 290 in West Palm, along with skyscrapers that will be rented out for shops and offices. The company plans to begin leasing its luxury apartments in 2018. (Much to the chagrin of affordable housing advocates concerned about the gentrification displacing renters from increasingly high-rent Miami neighborhoods, there are no plans for affordable housing as part of the development.)

A rendering of the Miami station (Credit: All Aboard Florida) 

For the cities hosting Brightline stations, the privately run infrastructure is coming at an opportune time. After taking a massive hit in the housing market crash and facing up to a new reality of rising sea levels and increasingly harsh — and costly — hurricane seasons, South Florida isn’t eager to take on the huge expense of building and maintaining new transit infrastructure.

In July, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez made headlines when he referred to trains as “19th-century technology” as a means to explain his decision to walk back a campaign promise for more light rail in the city and pitch a new plan for express rapid bus service instead. The pivot, he said, came down to money. Miami-Dade can’t afford to build new rail lines, let alone operate them. “I’m not abandoning anything. I’m just telling you what is the art of the possible,” Giménez​ told the Miami Herald editorial board. “If additional resources come our way, more things may be possible. This is what we can do, with what we have today.”

Yet he has not veered in his support for Brightline, offering public subsidies with the argument that the investment will be earned back through increased real estate and sales tax revenue. “As Miami-Dade County’s population and visitorship continue to grow, we must partner with the private sector to deliver services, such as transportation, to sustain this anticipated growth,” Giménez​ said in 2014. “All Aboard Florida is one of the best examples of public-private partnership that will help generate new tourism and business opportunities.”

Other mayors in the region agree on the ROI. “We’re already seeing more businesses coming up from Fort Lauderdale because West Palm Beach has all the culture and opportunities without the hassle of a bigger city,” West Palm Mayor Jeri Muoio told the Wall Street Journal in June. “I think we’ll soon see expansion from south of us as a result. This could be a real economic driver.”

Brookings’ Tomer says the two mayors have every reason to be optimistic. “This is an incredibly important project for Florida in particular Southeastern Florida because they are in desperate need of new mobility options that are competitive with automobiles,” he says. “They are out of space and they need to start building up, assuming they can keep the water at bay. This can be a powerful tool to start them on a different path for travel, improve mobility and help connect the region’s economic anchors — Orlando and Disney, Downtown Miami and the airport and the beach — and keep them competitive.”

Brightline has nearly finished building its South Florida stations and tracks and the Orlando tracks will be laid in 2018, says Brightline CEO Dave Howard. Meanwhile in Orlando, a $211 million train station, paid for by the state, is set to open next year at the city’s airport. The station will serve local buses, with hopes of eventually becoming a stop for the region’s commuter rail and Brightline.

A Multimillion-Dollar NIMBY Battle

Many Florida politicians may be on board for Brightline, but for the small, scenic towns lining the affluent Treasure Coast, the prospect of some 32 trains per day rushing across their quiet streets has provoked nothing short of outrage.

Since 2014, two Treasure Coast counties have dedicated more than $6 million in taxpayer money fighting Brightline in court. Local anti-rail groups have also raised more than $1 million to pressure politicians and wage an ugly PR war against All Aboard Florida.

Brightline’s opponents have a long list of complaints. They say the train will kill pedestrians, crash into drivers, delay ambulances, delay police cars, delay fire trucks, delay daily commuters, delay boaters, suffocate the boating industry, blow horns too loud, waste taxpayer money, waste private investor money, pollute the environment, bring down property values, endanger President Donald Trump, and help line Trump’s pockets.

Indian River and Martin counties have fought rail expansion in courts and in the Florida legislature since 2015, allocating more than $6 million on legal appeals. But the counties’ lawsuits have been either tossed or dropped. Meanwhile, state lawmakers this spring killed a bill that would have singled out Brightline for regulation.

Brightline’s Route

Hover over the counties to see how they’ve reacted to Brightline, and the Amtrak and Brightline routes to see how they compare.

Defeat has not deterred Brightline’s adversaries, whose lengthy lawsuits have helped delay the train.

John Renne is an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. When he isn’t teaching urban planning, he consults on transit-oriented development, as the cofounder of the TOD Group, which is developing a neighborhood near a Denver light-rail line. He says the opponents are wasting their time — and everyone else’s — with a weak argument.

“This development is extremely desirable to the market,” says Renne. “The service that’s going to be provided is a service that will provide a genuine benefit for commuters. They don’t have to be daily commuters. They can be weekly commuters. Or just want to be able to go to a Miami Heat game. Or just be in Miami and come up to West Palm Beach. The point is you can’t get from Miami to Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach in a car that quickly.”

To Renne, the people that should be concerned about the development’s impact on real estate values are renters and homeowners seeking affordable options. Especially in the downtown areas that are already appreciating in value, the new trains are certain to drive up the cost of housing. “Affordable housing agencies need to be cognizant of this issue,” he says.

When faced with market realities, opponents tend to lean back on scare tactics. “You know you read of accidents all the time,” says Brent Hanlon, a golf course manager in Martin County and chair of Citizens Against Rail Expansion, an anti-Brightline group founded by country club leaders. The group decries the crashes they fear the 110-mile-per-hour Brightline would bring. “It’s hard to predict that, but of course when you add additional traffic on the rail line you’ll have additional accidents,” Hanlon says, adding, “I hate to say it, but deaths too.”

Then there is the Trump argument. In a July letter to federal officials, Hanlon’s group wrote that since the train’s West Palm station is 5 miles from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, a federal loan for the project “creates an improper benefit to a private business of the President’s.” The group contradicted itself in the next paragraph, stating that the train “creates safety risks to President Trump and reduces the value of nearby properties such as Mar-a-Lago.” When Trump visits his Palm Beach home, his motorcade drives along a road that passes over the railroad.

But flawed arguments aside, the opponents have won some of their battles. In 2014, All Aboard Florida agreed to pay $47 million for upgrading rail crossings in the Treasure Coast after the Florida Department of Transportation ordered it to in response to demands from Treasure Coast communities. Unlike cities and counties in South Florida, these communities refused to foot the bill for upgrades, which included adding more gates to crossings and “sealed corridors.” These upgrades make it tougher for drivers to cross tracks while a train approaches, increasing safety. Even if Martin County loses future fights against the railroad, it has gotten these upgrades and other concessions to assuage residents’ fears, says Ruth Holmes, county attorney. “We have gained so much in the process by forcing them to the table with sealed corridors and water management improvement.”

One of the seemingly few Treasure Coast residents to publicly support the railroad has been Michael Fort, a Martin County retiree who worked for decades as a general manager for hotels in Washington, D.C., and Miami Beach.

Fort recalls getting blowback from his neighbors when he wrote a pro-train guest column for a local newspaper. “I think the safety concerns are totally exaggerated,” he says, remembering how he and his friends would cross railroad tracks on their way to school in the New Jersey town where he grew up. “I was 5. You know what we did when the gates went down? We stopped.” Fort, who says he can see the tracks from his backyard, recalled a Martin County meeting where school district officials complained that the train poses a danger to schoolkids. “The assertion was that high school students are too stupid to stop for a train,” he says. In Fort’s opinion, Brightline’s opposition is small-minded and selfish.

Not all Treasure Coast communities are 100 percent opposed. While Indian River and Martin counties spent millions fighting Brightline, St. Lucie County — sandwiched between them — has been more accommodating. “We just want to mitigate the impact on our residents rather than try to stop a moving train,” says Erick Gill, county spokesman. “The reality is they own the track.”

St. Lucie did not join its neighbors in the 2015 lawsuit against Brightline. But county officials did join them to challenge the railroad’s quest for an environmental permit from the South Florida Water Management District, which covers much of the Treasure Coast. The challenge was struck down on Sept. 30. The goal was to mitigate the train’s impact on county wetlands, not stop the project, Gill says. All previous challenges to permits sought by the railroad have been tossed or resolved.

Leaders from Fort Pierce, St. Lucie’s most populous city, have asked Brightline to consider adding a stop to the town of 45,000. A Brightline spokesperson would not confirm or deny that would happen. “This potential stop would also reduce the ever-expanding number of vehicles on our roads and provide a more energy-efficient means of transportation,” Shyanne Helms, Fort Pierce spokesperson, writes in an email.

Brevard County, Indian River’s northern neighbor, has also refrained from fighting the Brightline and All Aboard Florida. Leaders there have also been talking with the railroad about adding a stop in the county of more than half a million Floridians. Henry Parrish III, mayor of Cocoa in Brevard, wrote in an April column for Florida Today that a Brightline station in the county would bring jobs and development. Brevard officials believe a station would also boost tourism in the county, which contains NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where the space agency launches manned rockets.

While All Aboard Florida hopes to attract tourists and commuters, it has kept secret a major piece of information. With less than two months until opening day in South Florida, the company has yet to reveal Brightline’s ticket prices, saying only that they will be comparable to the costs of driving. By all indicators, the cost will be higher than existing public transit options. A weekday trip from West Palm to Miami International Airport takes two hours and costs an able-bodied adult $6.90 on Tri-Rail, South Florida’s government-run passenger train. A West Palm-Miami trip on Brightline will cost at least $16, a 2015 study commissioned by All Aboard Florida suggests. Even so, the railroad will roll out discount introductory fares, says Brightline’s Howard. Beyond the introductory fares, “we’re confident people will be impressed by our exceptional experience in travel,” he adds. The express rail plans to offer food, drinks and alcohol, as well as provide free WiFi and charge ports for electronics like smartphones and laptops.

“We’re extraordinarily proud of how far we’ve come and how close we are to getting this done,” Howard says.

Tomer says Howard has a reason to be proud — and that All Aboard’s playbook offers lessons for other states seeking to improve connectivity and bring new private sector partners into transportation

“There is no reason why this can’t happen elsewhere,” says Tomer. “It’s a unique arrangement in Florida with [All Aboard Florida] owning the land around the station in Miami and elsewhere, and owning the rail right of way but there is a strong argument to be made about how other real estate entities could reap more benefit from their land by increasing access to it through building out transit. That’s what’s at stake here, figuring out a new system to emulate what Florida has been able to do.”

UPDATE: This article was changed to clarify information about Tri-Rail’s route and how it differs from Brightline’s.

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Chris Persaud is a freelance reporter and programmer in South Florida. He has written or programmed for Fusion, Bankrate, The Progressive and The Palm Beach Post. His website, RichBlocksPoorBlocks.com, maps out income and other demographic data in every U.S. ZIP code.

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