Passenger Rail Bill Hits House Roadblock

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A controversial proposal for the state to oversee aspects of high-speed rail — intended to slow a planned private passenger-rail service linking Orlando and Miami — might have been derailed in the House.

The Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Tuesday declined to hear the proposal (HB 269), which in part sought to give the Florida Department of Transportation oversight of issues not preempted by federal law.

The subcommittee, the first of three House panels that could hear the proposal, is not scheduled to meet again during the legislative session. However, Rep. MaryLynn Magar, a Tequesta Republican who is helping sponsor the proposal, said after the meeting that she isn’t giving up.

“I will work long and hard, and long may mean more than just today, tomorrow, next week,” Magar said.

The measure also sought to require private passenger-rail operations to cover the costs of installing and maintaining safety technology at crossings unless contracts are reached with local governments.

The bill came as part of a long-running controversy about All Aboard Florida’s Brightline rail service, which is planned to carry passengers between Miami and Orlando. Residents and local governments in the state’s Treasure Coast region have fought the plans.

Brightline hailed the likely demise of the bill, which was backed by Treasure Coast lawmakers.

“The fact that the bill was pulled from the committee agenda today means the overwhelming input from groups such as the Florida Chamber (of Commerce) and Florida TaxWatch, elected officials from key cities and newspaper editorial boards is making an impact,” Rusty Roberts, Brightline vice president of government affairs, said in a prepared statement after the meeting. “We have been saying this bill is not about safety but an attack against private property rights and is targeting our company.”

Brent Hanlon, chairman of Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, a residents’ group opposed to Brightline, said it intends to continue pursuing the legislation.

“All Aboard Florida is taking a victory lap today in its public statements, but its latest actions are nothing more than a special interest group flexing its political muscle in a desperate attempt to protect its profits which are reliant on taxpayer subsidies,” Hanlon said.

Brightline has announced plans to begin operating a 30-minute route between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in late July. A wholly owned subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, Brightline intends to expand the service to Miami in late August.

Brightline is eventually planned to travel between Miami and Orlando. However, the service, which could be two years away from expanding north through the Treasure Coast on a route to Orlando, faces lawsuits from Martin and Indian River counties.

The Senate version of the bill (SB 386), sponsored by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, hasn’t moved forward since receiving unanimous support from the Transportation Committee on March 14.

The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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