Brightline Florida is hoping to build its new passenger rail alongside central Florida’s State Road 417 in order to take riders from Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World and the City of Tampa — but state officials aren’t yet convinced it’s the right decision.
A July 20, 2021, meeting of the Central Florida Expressway Authority led to a unanimous agreement to indefinitely delay the decision whether to allow Brightline to use its preferred route, or to find an alternative route.
The agreement doesn’t set anything in stone, as every option remains on the table. “This will buy us more time,” authority board member and Lake County Commissioner Sean Parks said of the agreement.
If the board decided to deny access to the rail company, it would require Brightline to find another — likely more costly — route. A consultant for the Central Florida Expressway Authority noted that Brightline’s preferred route may end up costing $1.7 billion for construction.
Additionally, many area residents have argued that development along the State Road 417 route would be environmentally unsafe — possibly being harmful to wetlands in that area, which were extensively damaged in prior development in the area.
A popular suggestion for an alternative route, which would go from the Orlando airport to a section of tolled State Road 528 expressway — a stretch which belongs to the Florida Department of Transportation — may end up costing nearly $300 million more than Brightline’s preferred route.
Some officials are concerned with taking the correct amount of time to consider the route, given Brightline’s advanced preparation with the project. “We have probably a few months left before Brightline gets to a critical place where there is no turning back,” said authority board member Christopher “C.J.” Maier.
“I would really love the scenario where our private partners in this community and Orange County would step in and help close that delta,” Maier added. “That being said, if that doesn’t occur, it puts us in a precarious place to direct a private enterprise to possibly step up with an extra $1 billion.”
John Sprouls, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Universal Parks & Resorts (an obvious competitor to Walt Disney World, which would benefit from the new train route), noted that the company would be willing to donate 17 acres for the rail corridor at the city’s convention center if Brightline uses the State Road 528 route.
“We will put our money and our resources where our mouth is,” said Sprouls. “We want to be part of the solution.”
Despite the unsure nature of Brightline’s path forward, the company broadcast its confidence with the process following the news of the authority board’s decision.
Following the expressway authority’s meeting, Brightline shared a press release claiming that the Central Florida Expressway Authority “unanimously approved a resolution of support for Brightline’s planned expansion between Orlando International Airport and Tampa” and reassuring that the company was still in discussions with the Florida Department of Transportation over the necessary path forward.
Brightline’s press release also says that the authority board also “cleared the way for Brightline to study a high-speed rail alignment along this corridor.”
“We’ve always found success by building a large and wide-ranging coalition of support, which was on display today,” said Christine Kefauver, Brightline’s senior vice president for corporate development.
“Today’s resolution of support brings us one-step closer to connecting Orlando and Tampa with Brightline’s modern, eco-friendly intercity rail service,” Kefauver continued. “Brightline is already making a significant impact in Florida today and by expanding to Tampa, we will deliver new mobility solutions and thousands of more jobs to Central Florida.”
Brightline has been involved in extensive development plans over the past year, with the company aiming to expand not only its Florida rail services but also other services around the country.
In May 2021, Brightline noted that it was in the midst of negotiating contracts in order to begin work on its Brightline West expansion, a project which would connect Los Angeles and Las Vegas with a high-speed rail system for the first time since 1997.
On July 6, 2021, the company announced that it had acquired a 110-acre parcel of land in Las Vegas that will serve as the project’s station once operational. Though the start of construction has not yet been announced, the company is hoping to begin the process by the end of 2021.
“The site affords us the size and optimum characteristics to fully execute our vision that will be anchored by the most convenient connection between two of the most significant markets in the West,” said Brightline West President and Chief Development Officer Sarah Watterson. “Building upon our experiences in major Florida cities, we will now bring creativity, innovation and environmental focus to this new gateway for Las Vegas.”