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Local legislators want to regulate Virgin Trains

Joshua Solomon Treasure Coast Newspapers USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA

PORT ST. LUCIE — State Sen. Debbie Mayfield plans again to push the Legislature to increase safety regulations for higher-speed passenger railroads, like Virgin Trains USA.

The Melbourne Republican is confident these safety measures can work their way through Tallahassee without much pushback, as a broader base of support may be forming in the wake of Virgin Trains ramping up the construction of its service through the Treasure and Space coasts.

“There’s a sense of urgency to make sure we’re getting this out before they get too far down the road on what they’re doing in our community,” Mayfield told the USA Today Network-Florida on Tuesday following a news conference held by the Vero Beach-based advocacy group Alliance for Safe Trains.

Virgin Trains, formerly Brightline, currently runs between Miami and West Palm Beach, but this summer it began its expansion to Orlando. This second phase, which is anticipated to be completed by 2022, has heightened the concerns of communities on the Treasure Coast and in Brevard County, Mayfield said.

Mayfield said she plans to submit her proposal, which still is in draft form, later this month. It will call for increased fencing, improved grade crossings and added transparency for citizens to know when and where accidents happen.

The bill plans to follow the findings a 2018 Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability report.

That study found that a higher rate of deaths and injuries occur along Florida passenger-rail lines than the national average. It recommends municipalities work with the Florida Department of Transportation to develop appropriate grade crossings, although FDOT’s overall role remains unclear.

The report, completed in November, noted the gap in state and federal regulation: There are rules for trains going slower than 81 mph and above 125 mph, but not in between — like the higherspeed passenger rail service Virgin Trains eventually will run.

“Now you have the facts and figures,” state Sen. Gayle Harrell said. “You can actually look and see where the gaps are. I think this year will be much more productive than in years past.”

Harrell, R-Stuart, joined Mayfield Tuesday in their attempt to regulate higher-speed rail service in Florida.

The Alliance for Safe Trains, which was formed earlier this year, is pushing for Gov. Ron DeSantis to more prominently address train safety.

“This one is maybe on the back burner,” Alliance for Safe Trains founder Susan Mehiel said.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

Mehiel said 90 people have be killed by trains in Floridasince January 2018; 52 of them by Virgin or Florida East Coast Railway freight trains, which share the same track.

She dismissed claims she sees primarily on social media that it’s only tresspassers on the tracks who are killed.

Virgin Trains officials declined to respond to claims that insufficient safety measures contributed to the deaths.

“Safety is a top priority at Virgin Trains,” spokesman Michael Hicks said in a statement Tuesday. “We meet and exceed the highest standards set by the (Federal Railroad Administration).”

Virgin Trains officials will review the bill once it’s filed, Hicks said.

For years grassroots groups have fought the Virgin Trains service coming through their communities.

In December, Martin County settled a lawsuit with the railroad in exchange for Virgin agreeing to additional safety measures and promising a train stop on the Treasure Coast.

Officials in Fort Pierce and in Brevard County also have been pressing Virgin Trains and its predecessor companies to commit to a stop along the 235-mile route between Miami and orlando International Airport. Space Coast residents and officials have recently began to air their concerns over safety of the railroad. Construction began last month along State Road 528 in Cocoa.

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