Brightline deaths in South Florida spur push for state oversight

click to enlarge Brightline deaths in South Florida spur push for state oversight
Photo via Brightline
Amid the backdrop of two recent pedestrian deaths along the path of new high-speed trains in Southeast Florida, several lawmakers on Tuesday continued their push for greater state oversight of passenger rail.

The Treasure Coast and Space Coast lawmakers are backing a proposal that would force the fledgling Brightline service, and not local governments, to potentially pay hundreds of millions of dollars for crossing upgrades and maintenance.

But Brightline President Patrick Goddard called the plan “legislative overreach,” and said the changes called for by lawmakers wouldn’t have altered the recent fatal incidents.

“We have cameras inside and outside the trains. We’re able to download information from the signal system itself. We were able to see if it activated properly,” Goddard told members of the Senate Community Affairs Committee during a workshop on the measure (SB 572) Tuesday. “The train was approaching. The horn was blowing. The lights were alternating with LED lights. Somebody still, in spite of all that, ducked under the crossing and walked in front of our train.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Debbie Mayfield said the need to enact state controls is more urgent following two pedestrian deaths in Boynton Beach involving the new Brightline trains and the December crash of the Amtrak Cascades passenger train in Washington that left three people dead.

“How many more deaths do we need to read about before something is done,” Mayfield, R-Rockledge, said during a press conference Tuesday morning. “That’s why we are here, to ensure the safety and well-being of our constituents and all Floridians.”

Mayfield’s proposal would require the state Department of Transportation to oversee passenger-rail issues not preempted by federal law and require private passenger-rail operations to implement federal recommendation for crossings. The measure would also require the private rail operator to pay to install and maintain safety technology at crossings, such as “sealed corridors” and ornamental fencing within urban zones, unless contracts are reached with a government.

Kate Cotner, Assistant County Attorney for Indian River, noted that the state and local governments have contracts related to crossings with Florida East Coast Railways. But Cotner said the governments don’t have similar agreements with Florida East Coast Industries and its subsidiary All Aboard Florida, the operator of the Brightline trains.

“The taxpayers of this state should not be left with the financial burden of paying for their safety improvements,” Cotner said.

Two recent deaths involving Brightline spurred Florida U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio to ask federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to review safety measures along the tracks.

Brightline on Friday announced it was expanding its safety-outreach effort, while asking the public to be more cautious around active railroads.

Goddard said the outreach will be a continuation of work with Operation Lifesaver, and will involve additional signage to warn motorists and pedestrians to stay off the tracks at grade crossings, as well as public service announcements in English, Spanish and Creole.

Brightline will operate with federally mandated Positive Train Control, which automatically slows down a train that is traveling too fast, later this year, Goddard said.

Sen. Keith Perry, a Republican from Gainesville, said the two fatalities don’t sound like “a crisis” but the deaths are “maybe the top of the list for a public perception problem” for the rail line.

Brightline, which has started to run between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, is ultimately planned to operate from Orlando to Miami.

The service intends to use existing north-south freight lines that run close to the coast in northern Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard counties. The rails have not handled regular passenger service in nearly a half-century.

There are nearly 350 crossings from Miami to Brevard County, and backers of the legislation contend the additional gates and fencing will require about $1 million per crossing.

Mayfield said each crossing needs to be evaluated based on its unique conditions.

“They are going right down the heart of downtown areas where there is a lot of activity going on, pedestrians and traffic,” she said. “Our citizens are not used to these trains.”

The company issued a statement Tuesday committing to upgrades at crossings, including “sealed corridor guidelines” where trains exceed 79 mph “even though they are the responsibility of the local city or county due to long-standing agreements.”

Backers of Mayfield’s proposal and a similar effort in the House (HB 525) insist that Brightline is not their target.

“If you look at any map of Florida you can see the potential for high-speed rail in various parts of our state exists,” Vero Beach Republican Rep. Erin Grall said during the press conference. “This really is about the precedent, about the precedent it sets and doing it right from the beginning.”

Brightline maintains the legislation is unconstitutional because it targets a single business and violates private property rights.

A similar proposal failed to gain traction during last year’s session, and this year’s House bill, sponsored by Grall and Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, has not been scheduled to appear before a committee.

Asked about the proposal on Tuesday, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, said discussions about the measure are ongoing.

“How do we move forward in keeping people safe, in partnership with local governments, the private sector and ourselves?” Corcoran said. “Hopefully we can get to a better place than obviously where we are today in trying to keep people safe.”

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