Congressman Spar Over Whether a Train is Surface Transportation

A group of five Republican congressmen is trying to argue that railroads are not surface transportation.

Four of them are from Florida and are trying to block Brightline from issuing bonds to raise money to pay for an extension of the intercity passenger railroad to Orlando, Florida, by arguing that only roads constitute surface transportation.

However, a bi-partisan group of congressman along with former Rep. John Mica are countering the railroads indeed a form of surface transportation.

The issue arose after Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) wrote to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao seeking her help in blocking Brightline from being able to obtain private activity bond financing.

Meadows, who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, wants DOT to suspend an approved allocation of $1.15 billion in private activity bonds to Brightline.

He was joined in the letter by four Florida congressmen, including Rep. Brian Mast (R-Florida) who represents an area north of West Palm Beach, Florida, knkown as the Treasure Coast.

Brightline trains will pass through this region at 110 mph after Florida East Coast Railway tracks are rebuilt.

Their letter argues that federal money spent on Brightline highway-rail crossing improvements should not count as a qualifying factor for the bonds because a railroad is involved.

The letter further argues that the the money is for crossings on FEC tracks not owned by — but leased to — Brightline and that involving a railroad “circumvents the intent of Congress.”

Writing his own letter to Chao, Mica said he “was involved in drafting and adoption of language … with the clear intent to establish eligibility of transportation projects which have a public benefit.”

Railroads were intended to be covered by the legislation, Mica said, in order “to provide a means of shifting the obligation from the taxpayer to private investors, and to encourage their subscription to help fund highway, rail, and other transportation projects.” He concludes, “It would be a setback if this first-of-its-kind project in the U.S. was not afforded this opportunity as Congress intended.”

Also writing in support of Brightline was House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) and eight other members of Florida’s congressional delegation.

“We disagree with those who suggest a rail system, whether freight or passenger, is not a ‘surface transportation project.’ ” they wrote to Choa.

Brightline opponents have spent $7 million in public funding finding the passenger carrier through lawsuits. All of those suit but has been dismissed.

The bond Brightlines wants to sell would be less expensive than private borrowing options or a $1.75 billion Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing loan.

Brightline had asked DOT to extend past May 31 the deadline for private activity bond sales.

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