Rail expert: Brightline passenger train likely to succeed

All Aboard Florida’s Brightline rail service “has a much greater likelihood of success” than other passenger train ventures because the company has found a niche market where it can make money without taxpayer support, according a report written by Robert Poole, the South Florida-based transportation director for the Reason Foundation.

The first Brightline train has arrived, housed in the company's rail repair facility off of Division Avenue in West Palm Beach on December 14, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

The first Brightline train has arrived, housed in the company’s rail repair facility off of Division Avenue in West Palm Beach on December 14, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

The report, which was published by the Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute, pointed to All Aboard’s three-part business model — ticket sales, real estate investments and food and beverage services.

Brightline plans to run 32 trains a day between Miami and Orlando with stops in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The 325-mile trip is expected to take about 3 hours.

Poole said the fact that Brightline will run largely in the Florida East Coast Railway’s existing corridor have kept costs low for the private venture, when compared to other passenger rail projects.

And with minimal stops, the service will likely be an attractive alternative to driving or flying, Poole added.

“All Aboard Florida may in fact be a niche market where higher speed rail can make business sense without taxpayer support, Poole wrote.

RELATED: First Brightline train arrives in West Palm Beach

In addition to the train service, All Aboard is building commercial and residential developments around its three South Florida stations in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Poole compared the model to that of the the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway Corporation.

“Though developed as a government corporation, it has been run as
a business and makes an annual profit,” Poole said of the Hong Kong system.

RELATED: Brightline opponents call financing plan shift a “scheme” to avoid lawsuit

All Aboard’s project has come under fire from Treasure Coast residents and officials, who fear the added trains will block police officers and firefighters from reaching the ill or injured. Boaters have also raised concerns that the company’s trains will increase draw bridge closures over the Loxahatchee River and impede navigation.

Martin and Indian River counties have filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to block bonds All Aboard plans to use to pay for the rail venture.

Poole’s report addresses the opposition, saying opponents’ claims are “exaggerated and imbalanced.”

A freight train passes the All Aboard Florida's Brightline station under-construction in downtown West Palm Beach. The passenger rail service station will connect West Palm Beach with Miami and Orlando. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

A freight train passes the All Aboard Florida’s Brightline station under-construction in downtown West Palm Beach. The passenger rail service station will connect West Palm Beach with Miami and Orlando. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Poole notes that Florida East Coast Railway was running trains on the corridor long before there were homes in the area, and improvements at rail crossings “will mean higher average speeds and less gates-down time than today for a given train.” Planned “quiet zones” would limited noise from train horns, he added.

And if All Aboard’s project fails, Poole says its investors, not taxpayers who will be on the hook.

Poole’s 4-page report was published this week by the non-profit institute, which bills itself as a “free-market think tank.”

The institute was criticized this year after one of its top officials was caught on audio tape sounding off about a constitutional amendment involving solar energy.

The utility-backed Amendment 1, which was turned down by voters this fall, would have made existing laws and regulations governing solar energy part of the state constitution, potentially paving the way for barriers to rooftop solar, opponents said. Its opponents said the measure’s wording was misleading, leading some voters to think it would be a way to advance solar energy in Florida.

Before the vote, an audio tape emerged that included comments by Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy at the James Madison Institute. On the tape, first reported by the Miami Herald, Nuzzo described how to use a “little bit of political jiu-jitsu” in promoting solar to win support for desired changes in policy.

Critics of Amendment 1 called Nuzzo’s comments an admission of a “secret scheme by the pro-utility coalition to mislead the public,” about Amendment 1.

The political committee behind the amendment, Consumers for Smart Solar, said that Nuzzo “misspoke” and erased almost all references to the James Madison Institute on its social media platforms.

Meanwhile, Brightline’s first passenger train arrived in West Palm Beach this month.

The train is being stored at the company’s rail repair facility on 15th Street in West Palm Beach. The 12-acre site is located just west of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

Brightline plans to start shuttling passengers between West Palm Beach and Miami in mid-2017. The bulk of the construction on the buildings and tracks that will mark its route is complete.

Track work for the second phase of the project, which runs between West Palm Beach and Orlando, has not yet begun.