State Rep. Erin Grall is charging that an All Aboard Florida representative made “misrepresentations” in congressional testimony supporting the department’s approval of tax-exempt bonds to finance the company’s Brightline higher-speed passenger train proposal to connect Miami and Orlando.
Grall, among Florida lawmakers from the Treasure Coast who are opposed to the train, sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who chaired an April 19 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Government Operations examining Brightline’s planned use of $1.15 billion in federally-approved, private activity bonds to finance the proposed railroad leg from West Palm Beach to Orlando.
“During the subcommittee hearing, and later in correspondence dated April 30, 2018, AAF made several misrepresentations related to its ownership interest, its past interactions with local governments, and the overall financial burden this proposed project will have on my constituents,” wrote Grall, the Vero Beach Republican who represents Indian River County and part of St. Lucie County, which lay along the planned Brightline route.
All Aboard Florida was not immediately available Thursday to respond to Grall’s letter.
The battle over the bonds’ approval now is the central fight in the war between All Aboard Florida, which is seeking to establishing the first privately-run cross-state passenger train service in more than 50 years, and a coalition of opponents raising concerns about the safety of trains that could go up to 110 mph through Grall’s district, and even faster further north; other impact on the ride-over communities; and the costs local governments expect to incur. All Aboard Florida has started its first phase, Brightline passenger train service between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. The company hopes to build the harder part, the West Palm Beach to Orlando line, with money raised from the $1.15 billion in tax-exempt, public activity bonds, and to start running those trains in the early 2020s, connecting the South and Central Florida markets.
If the bonds are at stake, the whole project could be at stake. And Meadows wants those bonds to at least be temporarily shelved.
Meadows now is on record, along with several Florida Republican lawmakers led by U.S. Reps. Brian Mast of Palm City and Bill Posey of Rockledge, as having emerged from that April 19 hearing with strong concerns that the federal government might have mistakenly authorized the bonds for the Brightline project.
Grall holds that position as well, citing some of the same issues that Mast, Posey, Meadows, and U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach and Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach raised in a letter they sent last week to the U.S. Department of Transportation urging it to suspend the bonds’ approval. Those issues focused largely on statements transportation official Grover Burthey made in explaining how the department came to approve the bonds, statements Meadows said struck him as contrary to the intentions of Congress.
Then earlier this week a group of nine members of Congress including Florida Republicans Carlos Curbelo, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Dennis Ross, and John Rutherford, and Florida Democrats Frederica Wilson, Lois Frankel, and Darren Soto sent their own letter, supporting All Aboard Florida, Brightline, and the approval and use of the private activity bonds. They argued that the private passenger railroad is exactly the kind of project envisioned for the private activity bonds, seen as a tool to leverage private investment into public infrastructure improvements.
In her letter, Grall challenged the accuracy of statements that Brightline President Patrick Goddard made during the April 19 meeting, which she attended, as well as statements in subsequent correspondence from All Aboard Florida.
Specifically, she took issue with Goddard’s statement that the permanent easement All Aboard Florida holds from the railroad tracks owner, Florida East Coast Railway, qualifies All Aboard Florida for having ownership rights, thereby qualifying the company for federally-approved private activity bonds to finance rebuilding the tracks.
She also took issue with Goddard’s statement that federal money used on the tracks between 2012 and ’14 also qualify All Aboard Florida for already having put federal money into the project, a requirement for the bonds. Grall noted the Department of Transportation did not approve the Brightline plans until 2016.
Grall alleged All Aboard Florida used the ownership issues to “intimidate” local governments into accepting that the train company would pay for initial upgrades to street and sidewalk crossings but leave longterm maintenance and future improvements to the local communities.
“This type of manipulation in order to gain access to multiple layers of taxpayer dollars is despicable,” she wrote.