House subcommittee postpones vote on high-speed rail bill

UPDATE, 11:05 a.m.: A citizen’s group opposing All Aboard Florida’s Brightline service has released a statement following today’s meeting.

“We are disappointed that the subcommittee did not debate the bill today, but we respect the legislative process, and look forward to more dialogue about this important legislation in due course,” said Brent Hanlon, chairman of Citizens Against Rail Expansion, also known as CARE FL. “All Aboard Florida (AAF) is taking a victory lap today in its public statements, but its latest actions are nothing more than a special interest group flexing its political muscle in a desperate attempt to protect its profits which are reliant on taxpayer subsidies. AAF continues to put the communities of South Florida on the hook for millions in upgrades to enhance safety measures and make a grab for taxpayer subsidies. We will continue to advocate for legislation that puts public safety first and we know that our elected leaders want the same. This is nothing more than an ill-conceived rail project by a private company that wants to shift costs to the taxpayers.”

ORIGINAL STORY: A House subcommittee postponed its vote this morning on a bill that would regulate high-speed passenger trains like All Aboard Florida’s Brightline.

Brightline’s second train set, dubbed BrightPink because of its color scheme, arrived in West Palm Beach on this month. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

The bill (HB 269) was to be taken up by the Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee, but members announced this morning that they were postponing the issue.

RELATED: Concern over Brightline prompts lawmakers to consider rail regulations
RELATED: Opinion: All Aboard Florida trying to keep Brightline’s future from dimming

A companion bill (SB 386) filed in the Senate cleared its first hurdle earlier this month, winning support from the Senate’s Committee on Transportation.

It would require high-speed rail companies such as All Aboard Florida to install safety features and pay for fencing along sections of its tracks where pedestrians could be at risk.

The bill also would establish minimum safety standards for high-speed rail, including the installation of Positive Train Control and Remote Health Monitoring safety technology. The features are designed to help stop a train if the engineer falls ill or a crossing gate malfunctions.

RELATED: See inside All Aboard Florida’s first Brightline train

In a statement released this morning, Brightline officials said the bill is deigned to target its passenger train service, which is set to begin operating between West Palm Beach and Miami this summer.

““The fact that the bill was pulled from the committee agenda today means the overwhelming input from groups such as the Florida Chamber and Florida TaxWatch, elected officials from key cities and newspaper editorial boards is making an impact,” said Rusty Roberts, Vice President of Government Affairs for Brightline.  “We have been saying this bill is not about safety but an attack against private property rights and is targeting our company.  Legislators are comprehending these facts, and we are appreciative.”

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

Two Treasure Coast counties who filed a federal lawsuit challenging All Aboard Florida’s push to sell tax-exempt bonds to pay for its Brightline train service continue to press for access to records related to the sale.

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)

In a federal court documents filed Wednesday, attorneys for Martin and Indian River counties called a new financing plan for the rail project – made public as a result of the court case –  a “scheme” and a “work around” to circumvent the legal challenge.

Martin and Indian River counties filed suit last year over the sale of $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds for the rail project, arguing that federal officials violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental policies when they approved the sale before an environmental study of Brightline’s second phase was complete.

The U.S. Department of Transportation last month withdrew its 2014 approval granting All Aboard Florida’s Brightline permission the bonds, a move federal officials now argue makes the lawsuit filed by the counties moot.

Instead, the federal transportation officials granted All Aboard provisional permission to move forward with a smaller, $600 million bond sale.

The original sale would have paid for the second phase of Brightline’s project, connecting West Palm Beach to Orlando.

The new sale will be limited to the rail venture’s first phase between Miami and West Palm Beach – where an environmental review has already been completed.

As a result of the financial change, federal transportation officials have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

But before a decision is made on that request, Martin and Indian River counties say they should be allowed to review documents related to both bond sales.

In court filings, the counties point to a letter Sept. 30 letter from All Aboard President Michael Reininger to federal transportation officials.

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)

In the letter, Reininger said the company planned to consider a second, $1.15 billion bond sale to help pay for rail work between West Palm Beach and Orlando.

“Within the next several weeks, we will separately discuss a new request for an allocation of up to $1.15 billion in (private activity bond) authority for Phase II,” Reininger wrote to federal transportation officials.

Wednesday’s filing also pointed to a series of email message between All Aboard and federal officials. The counties allege the emails show that All Aboard and federal transportation officials chose to communicate by phone or in person “in order to avoid written and discoverable substantive records of those communications.”

Meanwhile, Brightline’s first passenger train arrived in West Palm Beach last week.

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.

Brightline opponents want access to bond records

Two Treasure Coast counties who filed a federal lawsuit challenging All Aboard Florida’s push to sell tax-exempt bonds to pay for its Brightline train service asked a federal judge on Thursday to allow them to review bond records before deciding whether to dismiss the case.

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)

In court documents filed Thursday, Martin and Indian River counties said they should be able to review documents between All Aboard Florida and the U.S. Department of Transportation that deal with bond sales for the rail project.

Martin and Indian River counties filed suit last year over the sale of $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds for the rail project, arguing that federal officials violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental policies when they approved the sale before an environmental study of Brightline’s second phase was complete.

The U.S. Department of Transportation last month withdrew its 2014 approval granting All Aboard Florida’s Brightline permission the bonds, a move federal officials now argue makes the lawsuit filed by the counties moot.

Instead, the federal transportation officials granted All Aboard provisional permission to move forward with a smaller bond sale.

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)

The original sale would have paid for the second phase of Brightline’s project, connecting West Palm Beach to Orlando.

The new sale will be limited to the rail venture’s first phase between Miami and West Palm Beach – where an environmental review has already been completed.

As a result of the financial change, federal transportation officials have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

But before a decision is made on that request, Martin and Indian River counties say they should be allowed to review documents related to both bond sales.

In the court filing, the counties pointed to a letter Sept. 30 letter from All Aboard President Michael Reininger to federal transportation officials.

In the letter, Reininger said the company planned to consider a second, $1.15 billion bond sale to help pay for rail work between West Palm Beach and Orlando.

“Within the next several weeks, we will separately discuss a new request for an allocation of up to $1.15 billion in (private activity bond) authority for Phase II,” Reininger wrote to federal transportation officials.

 

 

 

 

 

Anti-rail group to hold town hall meetings about All Aboard’s Brightline

The citizen’s group opposing All Aboard’s Brightline passenger train service will hold two town hall meetings this week to discuss the project.

Construction continues on the All Aboard Florida train station on the Florida East Coast Railway in downtown West Palm Beach on September 6, 2016.  (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
Construction continues on the All Aboard Florida train station on the Florida East Coast Railway in downtown West Palm Beach on September 6, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, also known as C.A.R.E. FL, said the meetings are designed to provide residents with an update on efforts to block the rail project.

Construction on the first phase of Brightline’s service, which includes three stations and track work between Miami and West Palm Beach, is well underway.

Brightline plans to eventually run 32 trains a day between Miami and Orlando with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

The second phase of the track work, which runs between West Palm Beach and Orlando, has not yet begun.

CARE FL’s  meetings will be held in Stuart and Jupiter. Speakers include: Attorney Stephen Ryan; Brent Hanlon, CARE FL Steering Committee Chairman; and Robert Crandall, former president and CEO of American Airlines.

Stuart Town Hall Meeting

Tuesday, November 15, 2016 at 7p.m.

The Lyric Theater, 59 S.W. Flagler Ave., Stuart

Jupiter Town Hall Meeting

Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at 7 p.m.

Jupiter Community Center, 200 Military Trail, Jupiter

This Palm Beach County resort was named the best on Florida’s east coast

For the second year in a row, The Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Manalapan was ranked the best on Florida’s east coast by Conde Nast Traveler readers.

The popular travel magazine this week released the results of its annual Reader’s Choice awards, which ranks the top 20 resorts and hotels on Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

The Pool at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa
The Pool at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa

The Eau was one of nine Palm Beach County properties to make the lists this year. There is one for resorts and a second for hotels.

“We’re thrilled that so many of our properties in The Palm Beaches were recognized within their respective categories in the prestigious Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards for 2016,” said Rich Basen, senior vice president of marketing and leisure sales for Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s official tourism marketing organization. “This area has some of the world’s best resorts and hotels, because we offer unique, best-in-class experiences for travelers seeking the ultimate in luxury.”

The Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards are considered to be among the most prestigious in the tourism industry. More than 300,000 readers – nearly twice as many as last year – cast votes for this year’s list.

Here is this year’s list. Palm Beach County resorts and hotels are in bold.

TOP RESORTS IN FLORIDA (ATLANTIC COAST)

1. Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa – Palm Beach

2. St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort – Bal Harbour

3. Acqualina Resort & Spa on the Beach – Sunny Isles

4. Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa – Palm Beach

5. One Ocean Resort & Spa – Atlantic Beach

6. Trump National Doral Miami – Miami

7. Lago Mar Resort and Club – Fort Lauderdale

8. Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa – Jupiter

9. Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort – Amelia Island

10. Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island – Amelia Island

11. Pelican Grand Beach Resort – Fort Lauderdale

12. Hammock Beach Resort – Palm Coast

13. Boca Beach Club (Waldorf Astoria) – Boca Raton

14. The Breakers Palm Beach – Palm Beach

15. Trump International Beach Resort – Sunny Isles Beach

16. Turnberry Isle Miami – Aventura

17. Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa – Ponte Vedra Beach

18. Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach – Palm Beach

19. Boca Raton Resort & Club (Waldorf Astoria) – Boca Raton

20. Diplomat Resort & Spa Hollywood – Hollywood

TOP HOTELS IN FLORIDA

1. The Alfond Inn – Winter Park

2. Pillars Hotel – Fort Lauderdale

3. Casa Monica Hotel – St. Augustine

4. The Hotel Zamora – St. Pete Beach USA

5. Ritz-Carlton, Naples – Naples

6. Gates Hotel Key West – Key West

7. The Epicurean Hotel – Tampa

8. Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino – Tampa

9. The Chesterfield Palm Beach – Palm Beach

10. The Pearl Hotel – Rosemary Beach

11. Loews Don CeSar Hotel – St. Petersburg

12. Edgewater Beach Hotel – Naples

13. The Brazilian Court Hotel – Palm Beach

14. Vero Beach Hotel & Spa – Vero Beach

15. Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale – Fort Lauderdale

16. W Fort Lauderdale – Fort Lauderdale

17. Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek – Orlando

18. Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne – Key Biscayne

19. Hyatt Regency Orlando (formerly The Peabody) – Orlando

20. Hilton Orlando – Orlando

 

Rail group raffling off chance to ride on “Christmas Train”

The Florida East Coast Railway Society is raffling off a chance to ride on the 2016 “Christmas Train,” which will deliver toys to children at stops between Jacksonville and Miami. FECR Santa Train 1

Tickets are $25 each or 5 for $100, and can be purchased on the society’s website.

All profits will be directed to Florida East Coast Railway’s Toys for Tots campaign, the society said.

Two winners will be named on Nov. 12. Each winner will receive two tickets to ride the Florida East Coast Railway’s annual Christmas Train.

RELATED: Santa Train brings holiday cheer to 300 kids in West Palm Beach

Winners be “Santa’s elves” throughout the day working on the train and at each stop.

“This is the ultimate Florida Railfan Experience,” the society wrote on its Facebook page.

“While there is some hard work involved, you’ll also be treated to a day you’ll always remember for the once-in-a-lifetime experience, the wonderful food, the amazing camaraderie, and an unmatched railfan experience of riding in the FEC business cars, the St Augustine and the Azalea,” the society said.

Florida East Coast Railway has been running the holiday-themed train for more than five years. In 2014, the company raised roughly $400,000 in contributions and gift donations for Toys for Tots.

 

Tampa-area hotels saw surge, while Miami market suffered as Hurricane Matthew bore down

Tampa-area hotels were near-capacity last week thanks to a surge of Florida residents and tourists who fled west as  Hurricane Matthew threatened the state’s east coast.

DELRAY BEACH, FL - OCTOBER 06:  Jason Brock (L) and Kevin Hunter put up hurricane shutters in front of a business as Hurricane Matthew approaches the area on October 6, 2016 in Delray Beach, United States.  The hurricane is expected to make landfall sometime this evening or early in the morning as a category 4 storm.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
DELRAY BEACH, FL – OCTOBER 06: Jason Brock (L) and Kevin Hunter put up hurricane shutters in front of a business as Hurricane Matthew approaches the area on October 6, 2016 in Delray Beach, United States. The hurricane is expected to make landfall sometime this evening or early in the morning as a category 4 storm. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Hoteliers in the Tampa/St. Petesburg area saw a double-digit rise in revenue per available hotel room — a key benchmark for the tourism industry — during week of Oct. 2, making them among the highest performing in the nation, according to STR, a hotel research firm that specializes in global data benchmarking, analytics and marketplace insights.

RELATED: After Hurricane Matthew, Florida’s tourism industry works to woo back travelers

Tampa-area hotels saw an 18.4 percent jump in revenue per available room last week, STR said. The benchmark, which gives an average of what visitors pay based on number of rooms available, is used by local hoteliers to evaluate the state of the tourism industry.

Tampa/St. Petersburg hotels also reported the largest increase in hotel room occupancy levels, STR said. Hotel occupancy in the area hit 94.8 percent on Thursday night as Matthew made its was past South Florida, up 30.8 percent over the same day last year, according to Jan Freitag STR’s Senior Vice President, Lodging Insights.

Meanwhile, Miami area hotels saw room revenues and occupancy levels plummet as the hurricane bore down.

The Miami/Hialeah area was one of only four markets in the country that saw a double-digit drop in revenue per available room. The revenue benchmark fell by 23.3 percent during the week of Oct. 2, according to STR.

The Miami/Hialeah area was one of two markets that reported a double-digit decline in occupancy levels. Occupancy feel to 59.5 percent last week, a 15.8 percent drop over the same time period last year, STR said.

 

 

After Hurricane Matthew, Florida’s tourism industry works to woo back travelers

In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, Florida’s tourism industry has launched a new marketing campaign designed to woo travelers back to the state.

100516 PBDN Meghan McCarthy Town of Palm Beach lifeguard George Klein connects a lifeguard station to a crane to be lifted off of Midtown Beach in anticipation of Hurricane Matthew Wednesday.
100516 PBDN Meghan McCarthy Town of Palm Beach lifeguard George Klein connects a lifeguard station to a crane to be lifted off of Midtown Beach in anticipation of Hurricane Matthew Wednesday.

Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing organization, said Tuesday it has created a “four-pronged hurricane response marketing plan” to let travelers know the industry is “open for business” here.

The campaign includes social media posts, a series of new videos and a push to get people to post photos of tourism spots with the hashtag #LoveFL.

The campaign also includes efforts to “support the communities that were directly impacted by Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Hermine,” Visit Florida’s President and CEO Will Seccombe wrote in a blog posted on the tourism group’s website.

Seccombe said the tourism group held a conference call with tourism leaders from across the state on Tuesday to “get a county-by-county damage assessment and to review plans to proactively promote our state to visitors.”

Palm Beach County was spared the brunt of the storm. Had Matthew not wobbled slightly to the east, the still raging hurricane might have unleashed its 140 mph winds here instead of pummeling Freeport in the Bahamas on Thursday night on its multiday death march through the Caribbean.

Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing group, said hotels, resorts and other industry businesses are back to normal, adding that some are offering special rates to residents from other parts of the state who were impacted by the storm.

“The Palm Beaches were fortunate to experience no significant damage or incidents,” Discover said Friday.”While The Palm Beaches are on the path to regaining normalcy for its residents and visitors, our collective heart goes out neighboring coastal communities that are experiencing the wrath of Hurricane Matthew.”

Hurricane Matthew is the latest in a string of bad news for Florida’s tourism industry.

In June, a gay nightclub in Orlando, the state’s top travel hub, was the scene of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The following week, an alligator killed a toddler at the Walt Disney World resort.

Then a massive algae bloom stunk up waterways and beaches in Martin County. A Zika outbreak in Miami-Dade County also threatened in the industry. And Hurricane Hermine whipped through the state’s panhandle region the first week of September.

Still, the state’s tourism industry has shown resiliency. Despite the negative publicity, the state is on pace to beat last year’s record of 105 million visitors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ft. Lauderdale airport to offer nonstop service to the Middle East

South Florida travelers will soon be able to fly nonstop between Fort Lauderdale and the Middle East.

The Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport announced Tuesday that Emirates Airlines plans to launch non-stop service between Broward County and Dubai. The flights begin Dec. 15. 10046_3210_emirates-777-200

This is the first time the airport has offered nonstop flights to the Middle East.

The Broward County airport will be one of only 11 in the U.S. that are served by Emirates Airlines.

“Broward County is honored that Emirates Airlines has selected FLL as their gateway to our vibrant and exciting destination,” said Marty Kiar, Broward County Mayor. “This nonstop service will allow world travelers to experience our sun-drenched beaches to the majestic beauty of the Everglades and all the sensational attractions of a cosmopolitan area. Additionally, our residents can now explore the Middle East and the other 150 plus cities served by this world-class airline.”

With a fleet of more than 230 aircraft, Emirates Airlines currently flies to over 150 destinations in more than 80 countries around the world. Over 1,500 Emirates flights depart Dubai each week on their way to destinations on six continents.

“Emirates is one of the world’s most sought after airlines. They offer award winning customer service, worldwide connectivity through their airline partnerships, including jetBlue Airways and a fleet of long-range, world-class aircraft. We are honored they chose FLL to launch their new service in the South Florida region.” said Mark Gale, the airport’s CEO/Director of Aviation.

As Zika fears grow, Palm Beach County could turn tourism focus to older travelers

As the number of cases of locally acquired Zika virus grows in South Florida, Palm Beach County tourism officials said Wednesday they could shift their some of their marketing efforts away from millennials and travelers of childbearing age who may be more concerned about the virus.

Officials with Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing organization, said Wednesday that if fear of Zika continues to grow, they could easily turn more of their advertising focus to older travelers who aren’t as worried about contracting the virus.

GUANGZHOU, CHINA - JUNE 21: An adult female mosquito is seen uder a microscope at the Sun Yat-Sen University-Michigan University Joint Center of Vector Control for Tropical Disease on June 21, 2016 in Guangzhou, China. Considered the world's largest mosquito factory, the laboratory raises millions of male mosquitos for research that could prove key to the race to prevent the spread of Zika virus. The lab's mosquitos are infected with a strain of Wolbachia pipientis, a common bacterium shown to inhibit Zika and related viruses including dengue fever. Researchers release the infected mosquitos at nearby Shazai island to mate with wild females who then inherit the Wolbachia bacterium which prevents the proper fertilization of her eggs. The results so far are hopeful: After a year of research and field trials on the island, the lab claims there is 99% suppression of the population of Aedes albopictus or Asia tiger mosquito, the type known to carry Zika virus. Researchers believe if their method proves successful, it could be applied on a wider scale to eradicate virus-carrying mosquitos in Zika-affected areas around the world. The project is an international non-profit collaboration lead by Professor Xi Zhiyong, director of the Sun Yat-Sen University-Michigan University Joint Center of Vector Control for Tropical Disease with support from various levels of China's government and other organizations. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
GUANGZHOU, CHINA – JUNE 21: An adult female mosquito is seen uder a microscope at the Sun Yat-Sen University-Michigan University Joint Center of Vector Control for Tropical Disease on June 21, 2016 in Guangzhou, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

“The boomers clearly don’t have as much of a concern because they are done with the procreation aspect of their lives and so that may be something that we shift a little bit,” Jorge Pesquera, Discover’s president and CEO, told members of the county’s Tourist Development Council on Wednesday.

Discover officials said programmatic digital advertisements allows the organization to target specific groups of travelers, adding that they can quickly change who those ads reach if market conditions changes.

“That is the beauty of programmatic media buying, you could turn on a dime,” Pesquera told the board.

Discover’s marketing efforts are designed to appeal to a diverse group of visitors — including millennials, families, African Americans and gays and lesbians.

“Affluent mature” adults (those over 55 with an annual income of more than $60,000) have historically represent the largest group of visitors in Palm Beach County. In 2013, that group represented 32 percent of tourists here. But the number dropped to 27 percent in 2014, while there was a rise in the number of young families, “mature and free” adults (35-54 years old, any income, no kids), and “moderate mature” adults (over 55, with an annual income of less than $60,000).