HSR challenges in Florida for Brightline

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.

The route map for Brightline shows just how much is left to go, even after the three southern stations are opened later this Summer.
The route map for Brightline shows just how much is left to go, even after the three southern stations are opened later this Summer.

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.

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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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


    1. I think those markets have decent potential for expansion, assuming the Orlando segment happens. But that appears to be a pretty big “if” right now. I’d bet Jacksonville is an easier build out since the rail and right of way already exists.

  1. The problem actually isn’t that it’s that FLORIDIANS USE CARS. Period. End of story. Rail always fails in Florida and always will.

    The only rail that would work is airport to cruise ship port but because that makes too much sense we only get boondoggles like Brightline.

    1. That’s not really the end of the story, though.

      1) This isn’t only about residents. It is mostly about visitors, many of whom come from Europe and Asia and are used to reliable and robust intercity rail service.
      2) Some of the commercial and retail development will help shift the behavioral patterns.
      3) It probably doesn’t matter because they aren’t bothering to build the part of the network that is supposed to drive nearly 80% of the revenue.


    2. There will never be an airport-to-cruise-port line in Florida. The cruise lines make tons of money selling bus transfers, and they will no doubt fight anything that would hurt their revenue.

      1. Or the cruise lines get in on the deal selling the rail transfers instead. Especially appealing if it opens up more airport options (i.e. lowers airfare costs) to those on the ships.

      2. There just can’t be a lot of money in FLL to Port Everglades and MIA to Port of Miami. It’s super short distance. And the traffic is so bad I doubt cruise lines would object and no one would care if they objected anyway.

    3. You hit it on the mark..Fort Lauderdale airport needs light rail (elevated) to it’s Port – Port Everglades.One of the top 3 cruise ports in the world..

  2. Seth,
    You said: “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.”

    I don’t mean to be harsh, but have you really done your research on AAF? They have obtained most of their required permits for phase 2. That is, they have been obtained in writing and signed off on by the government. The Boring Company is vaporware until proven otherwise. Elon Musk can write alot of good PR material but until he comes up with a viable and safe solution it’s like the old cartoon show “The Jetsons”.

    The delay is caused by financing issues and eventually that will be overcome. It’s not that “they aren’t bothering to build” the next section to Orlando.

    1. I’ll start with the easy one: the Musk comment was firmly tongue-in-cheek and I wrote just the other day that the verbal approval thing is bullshit.

      As for the permit challenges headed north from Palm Beach, the linked story above includes comments suggesting that the legal and permitting issue remains very real:
      “Michael Reininger, executive director at Florida East Coast Industries, expressed frustration with the regulatory process during his testimony before a federal subcommittee on transportation last month. Reininger, who appeared before the group to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing intercity passenger rail, said the company is still trying to secure permits to start the work two years after federal officials released their findings.”

      Moreover, I can recognize the phrases used to describe NIMBY objections very well. When executives from the company say things like “We look forward to continuing to work with the communities in the Treasure Coast, especially on partnerships with quiet zones,” (also from the PBP story linked inline) I recognize that legal challenges are forthcoming, assuming the permits are issued at all.

      I like rail. I support HSR in certain US markets and South Florida is one of them. I think it should be faster, but that’s a different issue. But I can also recognize when there are very real problems with a business plan and the local cooperation is lacking. This carries all the hallmarks of such a scenario.

  3. I’ve driven, as an American but as a non-Florida resident, from Orlando to Miami before and I would certainly have opted for a train instead.

    On the southern end this would also affect FLL and MIA. Many people choose FLL over MIA for pricing reasons. I think many more would choose FLL if there was an easier way to get to Miami. Or on the flip side this could hurt FLL…..MIA could recognize what I said above and try harder to compete on price therefore evening up the FLL/MIA competition.

    1. Yeah, though airport access is not the same as city access. Even adding a shuttle bus is enough to make some choose to just go to the rental car counter instead.

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