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A legislative initiative in Florida seeks to pave the way for Brightline’s expansion by creating a rail corridor along I-4



A legislative initiative in Florida seeks to pave the way for Brightline's expansion by creating a rail corridor along I-4

A state appropriations request of $50 million is intended to set the groundwork for Brightline’s proposed expansion into Tampa.

Florida Representative Karen Gonzalez Pittman, on November 14, endorsed a request from Hillsborough County Commissioner Michael Owen. The request aims to integrate “a modest scope of additional structure work” into a $2 billion highway construction project near Orlando. This incorporation is crucial for enabling intercity passenger rail service.

The specified area, approximately 11 miles along Interstate 4 near Champions Gate, is already slated for widening under the “Moving Florida Forward” initiative. The initial phase of road construction is anticipated to commence in late 2024.

This presents a chance to construct the tracks promptly, reducing potential future traffic disturbances and overall costs in the process.

“We can’t afford as a county not to go after those funds for this critical infrastructure,” Owen said in an interview.

On October 18, the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners voted to endorse Brightline’s expansion, incorporating it into their roster of state legislative priorities, as per Owen’s request.

If the appropriation proves successful in the upcoming 2024 legislative session, the Florida Department of Transportation would receive the funds. Earlier this year, the department applied for a federal grant, amounting to a maximum of $500,000, to advance intercity rail service between Orlando and Tampa. This grant is seen as an interim measure, aiding FDOT in planning the development of the rail corridor.

Owen’s funding request anticipates a federal contribution of $50 million to the project.

While Owen’s request mentions Brightline only once, the private company, owned by Fortress Investment Group, is the most logical candidate to utilize the corridor. There is some risk involved if the company decides against expansion.

“This is not money that’s going to Brightline,” Owen said. “This is money that is strictly going to be used for the infrastructure corridors going through Osceola and Polk and eventually to Hillsborough County.”

The rail company and Rep. Pittman did not offer immediate comments for this article. However, letters of support from various entities, including the Central Florida Development Council, Polk County Transportation Planning Organization, Polk County, Osceola County, the Tampa Bay Partnership, Hillsborough County, the city of Tampa, and the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, are anticipated, as outlined in the funding request.

Brightline invested approximately $6 billion in constructing its line from Miami to Orlando, which fully opened on September 22. The route has proven successful, with nearly 80,000 long-distance travelers in its first month. The company also has plans for a $12 billion line from Las Vegas to the outskirts of Los Angeles.

As of now, the Florida project carries $3.5 billion in debt, with Nuveen holding almost 75% of that debt. In September, Brightline remarketed $770 million of its revenue bonds, with no immediate plans to use the funds for the Tampa route.

The potential expansion to Tampa holds significant advantages for the community, with Hillsborough County taxpayers not facing additional levies, as emphasized by Owen. The Nov. 14 funding request highlighted the importance of the expansion for the state’s economy, providing access to the passenger rail system for three million residents in the Tampa Bay region. This is expected to reduce vehicle miles traveled on I-4 and other critical roadways by more than 144 million miles.

Brightline previously received a $15.9 million federal grant in 2022 for half the funds needed for the preliminary engineering of the Tampa extension. The initial focus will be on the Sunshine Corridor, connecting the Orlando airport and other destinations alongside Orlando’s commuter rail system. Once the $2 billion Sunshine Corridor is completed, Brightline would need to construct approximately 67 miles of track along I-4 to reach Ybor City.

Brightline’s recent bond documents estimate that its Florida service will attract 8.78 million annual riders and generate over $1 billion in revenue by 2030. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has expressed optimism, suggesting that Brightline could reach Ybor City by 2028. However, an expansion to St. Petersburg appears unlikely due to the Howard Frankland Bridge being designed for light rail, not heavy rail.


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