A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed lawsuits filed by Martin and Indian River counties challenging All Aboard Florida’s plan to sell tax-exempt bonds to help pay for its Brightline passenger train service.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper ruled that the lawsuits were moot because the U.S. Department of Transportation has withdrawn its 2014 approval granting Brightline permission to sell up to $1.75 billion in bonds to pay for the rail project.
In court documents filed in November, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it had withdrawn its original approval, and instead granted All Aboard provisional permission to move forward with a smaller bond sale.
The original sale would have help pay for the second phase of Brightline’s project, connecting West Palm Beach to Orlando. The new sale would be limited to the rail venture’s first phase between Miami and West Palm Beach, the court documents said.
In a statement released late Wednesday, All Aboard said Cooper’s decision was “another loss” for Treasure Coast leaders who have spent years fighting to block the rail project, which is planned to link Miami to Orlando with stops in Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
“All Aboard Florida believes Judge Cooper properly dismissed the case, and we appreciate his thoughtful review and articulation of the facts and the law,” the company said. “This is another loss in a series of lawsuits that has cost Treasure Coast residents almost $6 million. We look forward to working with the Treasure Coast in a cooperative and more productive fashion as we advance this important infrastructure project.”
Despite the dismissal, Martin County officials also declared victory Wednesday. The county pointed to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision to withdraw its 2014 approval, saying the decision to dismiss the case “does not diminish the significant victory of the counties.”
“This is a success story and a hard-fought win for our community, and it confirms our thoughtful litigation strategy was successful,” County Attorney Sarah Woods said in a statement released just after 9 p.m.
Martin County said it was “assessing its next legal steps,” adding that officials are also monitoring any efforts by All Aboard to use tax-exempt bonds to pay for the West Palm to Orlando route.
In documents made public last year, All Aboard officials said they planned to consider a second, $1.15 billion bond sale to help pay for rail work between West Palm Beach and Orlando.
Martin and Indian River counties filed suit in 2015 over the original bond sale, arguing that federal officials violated the National Environmental Policy Act when they approved the tax-exempt bonds before an environmental study of the rail project’s second phase was complete.
Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, also known as CARE FL, said the lawsuits were a “resounding win” for Treasure Coast residents.
“AAF’s insatiable need for public subsidies continues and the decision in this matter doesn’t advance their quest,” the group said Wednesday.
Construction on the first phase of Brightline’s service, which includes three stations and track work between Miami and West Palm Beach, is nearly complete.
Brightline plans to launch the first leg of its passenger service this summer.
Two of the company’s trains have already arrived in West Palm Beach. Two more are expected to arrive on Thursday at the company’s rail repair facility near 15th Street in West Palm Beach.
Construction on the company’s West Palm Beach-to-Orlando leg has not yet begun. Brightline officials have said the project will take at least two years to complete.
Brightline has said it will start “pre-season” service between West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale in late July. Service between West Palm Beach and Miami is expected to begin in August.
Ticket prices have not been released.
A grand opening of the rail project is planned for mid-September, the company said.