A federal court judge on Monday rejected each of Indian River County’s legal challenges to All Aboard Florida, throwing out the county’s latest lawsuit against the passenger railroad, formerly Brightline and now known as Virgin Trains USA.

Dismissal of the lawsuit apparently clears the way for construction of the new rail corridor through the Treasure Coast and Space Coast. Officials of the railroad have said construction would begin early next year, with completion of the $2.1 billion extension from West Palm Beach to Orlando eyed for sometime in 2021.

Siemens Rolling Stock president Michael Cahill (center)

The entire project — between Miami and Orlando — is expected to cost at least $3.7 billion.

In a 72-page memo supporting dismissal of the case, Judge Christopher Cooper methodically picked apart Indian River County’s two main arguments, siding in each case with the U.S. Department of Transportation and All Aboard Florida, parent company of Brightline and Virgin Trains.

The county had argued that the Department of Transportation improperly allocated $1.15 billion of tax-free bonds to the railroad project, and that its federally mandated public-health and safety reviews were “flawed and incomplete.”

Cooper granted the Department of Transportation’s request that the lawsuit be dismissed.

Indian River County was left going it alone in court after Martin County commissioners on Nov. 24 agreed to settle their participation in the lawsuit. Indian River commissioners, just days earlier, had voted 4-1 against settling.

Brightline debuted its West Palm Beach station Tuesday.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Brightline spokeswoman Ali Soule said: “The court’s decision adds momentum to our efforts of connecting Orlando to South Florida. We remain focused on exploring locations for a Brightline station in the Treasure Coast and are encouraged by the tremendous amounts of support we have received in the region. We appreciate Judge Cooper’s well-reasoned ruling.”

Indian River County Administrator Jason Brown on Tuesday said he had not yet reviewed the ruling in depth, but that the county would “evaluate our next steps.”

Those include filing a new lawsuit over the cost of maintaining railroad crossings, he said.

Despite the court decision that the feds properly allocated the tax-free bonds to the railroad, the company will “continue having a hard time financing it,” Brown said.

The Department of Transportation on Friday extended All Aboard Florida’s deadline for selling those bonds from Dec. 31 to June 30.

In dismissing Indian River’s case, the judge specifically rejected its arguments that:

  • The bonds, needed to finance the West Palm Beach-to-Orlando Phase 2, violated provisions of the Internal Revenue Code and did not qualify as a “qualified highway or surface freight transfer facility” as required by federal law
  •  The reviews of the extension from West Palm Beach to Cocoa did not adequately examine the public-safety effects of the project, the effects on boats forced to wait at railroad bridges, alternative routes for the rail corridor, noise impacts and changes to freight operations, which now run along the corridor and would share them with passenger trains.

Brightline began limited passenger service, between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, on Jan. 8, and extended service to Miami on May 19. 

Phase 2 would comprise 128 miles from West Palm Beach through the Treasure Coast and Space Coast to Cocoa, and 40 miles along the Beachline Expressway, State Road 528,  to Orlando International Airport.

The company also is in talks with state officials on its proposal to extending Virgin Trains from Orlando to Tampa.

Further, the company recently agreed to acquire the rights to build high-speed rail service from Southern California to Las Vegas. As part of that project, the  company said, it would build a station on the Las Vegas strip.

Locally, both Fort Pierce and Stuart are bidding for a station along Virgin Trains’ Miami-Orlando line.

Staff reporter Colleen Wixon contributed to this report.

Florida Today article: https://www.tcpalm.com/story/news/local/shaping-our-future/growth/2018/12/25/indian-river-lawsuit-dismissed/2411193002/

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