End of the line for Indian River train fight?
Treasure Coast Newspapers USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA
On Friday, Indian River County sustained yet another blow in its never-ending legal battle with Virgin Trains.
This may have been a knockout punch.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the county’s claims the federal government improperly approved $1.15 billion in private activity bonds for the higher-speed rail company – formerly known as Brightline – to expand its Miami-to-Orlando rail line, and that the bonds were issued without sufficient environmental review.
The county still has other legal challenges pending, but this was the big one. Martin County and Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida were once parties to the case, but bailed out last year. Indian River County pressed on, approving another $1 million for the fight.
The county could appeal this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That, however, would be a monumental waste of taxpayer dollars.
The county fought the good fight. But the chances of the Supreme Court opting to review the case would seem to be extraordinarily thin, the chance of victory slimmer still.
There’s a time to admit defeat – and this is it.
The county’s concerns remain legitimate. The higher-speed trains will impact every town, every community through which they pass.
There could be deaths. Since service debuted in 2017, more than 40 people have been fatally struck by Brightline/Virgin trains – including a pedestrian reportedly killed in West Palm Beach on Friday, Dec. 20.
That’s an average of more than one death per month, the highest fatality rate among the nation’s 821 railroads, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.
Virgin Trains officials have pledged to fund new initiatives to cut down on the fatalities. But it stands to reason that as the system is built out, from Miami to Orlando and beyond, there will be even more people who try to beat the train, or who choose the train as the means of ending their own lives. This, coupled with the sheer number of trains through the region, the simple inconvenience of more time spent at crossings, the potential for noise and impact on property values mean the train will definitely affect our collective quality of life.
But it ought to be abundantly clear by now the courts are not inclined to consider this enough to derail this project. So as Martin County did a year ago, Indian River County should cut its losses and rethink its strategy.
Florida Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, and Florida Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island have filed identical versions of of the Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act.
Among other things, the measure would give the Florida Department of Transportation the authority to regulate railroad companies to the extent not preempted by federal law, and require the state Department of Emergency Management to train local communities to respond to rail crashes and accidents.
Is that enough? It may have to be.
Unless Virgin Trains implodes financially – and it’s worth noting recent reports that the south Florida line probably won’t reach half of its 2019 ridership goal nor a third of its revenue goal – the train is coming.
The federal government wants the project. The state wants this project.
And Indian River County would be wise to seek concessions, focus on legislation and pressure Virgin Trains to make the tracks safer – rather than spending millions more to sling a few additional rocks at the giant’s temple.
Gil Smart is a TCPalm columnist and a member of the Editorial Board. His columns reflect his opinion. Readers may reach him at email@example.com, by phone at 772-223-4741 or via Twitter at @TCPalmGilSmart.