The thing about high speed rail travel is that it doesn’t really offer much in the way of efficiency on short hops. For the Brightline project in South Florida the goal was a route from Orlando to Miami, long enough to deliver demonstrable time savings to commuters and tourists alike versus driving. The company expects to launch commuter service between Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami later this Summer which is mostly on schedule and as expected.
Based on recent updates, however, it seems a bit less likely that the stretch from Orlando to West Palm Beach will become operational. At a minimum expect it to be late 2020 before that service launches. The company believes it will take at least two years from beginning of construction on that section of the tracks until passengers will be carried. And it hasn’t started the work yet.
Among other challenges is the NIMBY factor, with residents north of Palm Beach opposing the 110mph trains (does that really count as HSR, even if twice as fast as what’s operating today?!?) running through the region. As the Palm Beach Post describes it, “track work between West Palm Beach and Central Florida has been delayed by a myriad of legal challenges, permitting issues and financing setbacks.” The financing issue appears tied to indecision on the part of the company. Initially it considered a federal loan then shifted to the bond market for funding but was forced to shelve the $1.75bn offering. That was back in 2014ish and now the company still needs a couple billion dollars to finish the work. Going back to the feds would mean reopening the environmental impact assessment process and give the many NIMBY-folk opportunities to further delay or derail the project.
At the northern end of the project, however, sits the nearly completed $221mm transportation hub at Orlando International Airport. The building includes a Brightline station to handle the operations, assuming the work is completed. And once the building opens Brightline is on the hook for $10mm annually in rent. That seems small in a budget of billions for construction but the Orlando end of the route was expected to deliver half the ridershp and nearly 80% of the revenue for the project. Without that income the viability of the effort is questionable.
— Lori Berman (@loriberman) July 19, 2017
Within South Florida the Tri-Rail service offers rail connectivity today, though at slower speeds. Plus the Tri-Rail stations don’t include the integrated commercial, residential, and residential developments that Brightline hopes will bring riders and employees on to the trains. If the home and office are both on the line then why drive, right?
But the fact that the company is still working to secure the necessary permits to begin construction cannot be good news for its future. Unlike The Boring Company it seems there isn’t even “verbal government approval” in place here.
Building new rail infrastructure is hard. Doing it as a private entity is really, really hard. And Brightline appears set for an uphill battle to develop its full planned service.
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