Palm Beach Post article: Water district managers issue permit for All Aboard rail project

Posted on August 22, 2016

By Jennifer Sorentrue

South Florida water managers have issued a key environmental permit for sections of All Aboard Florida’s Brightline rail project, but the approval leaves out dozens of rail crossings through parts of Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties.

The South Florida Water Management District on Friday announced it has issued a permit approving how the Brightline plans to handle stormwater runoff around its rail line. The approval, however, does not include 77 intersections where the rail line crosses over roadways, water managers said.

All Aboard Florida has alleged the intersections are exempt from permit review. In a news release announcing the approval, water managers, however, said the “viability of the company’s assertion cannot be determined.”

The approval addresses only stormwater management systems in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, not the construction or operation of the railway line. The permit does not authorize All Aboard to perform any work within the roadway crossings, the district added.

The approval has drawn criticism from Martin County officials, who have been fighting to block the rail line.

On Friday, Martin County said in a news release that it is “disappointed with this decision, and strongly believes the district should not issue the permit.”

“We will look carefully at this permit,” County Attorney Michael Durham said. “However, our assessment is that the AAF application remained incomplete and does not contain all the information required by Florida Statues. It fails to provide reasonable assurances that harmful and negative environmental impacts would not occur.”

The permit approval comes just days after Martin officials declared a “major victory” in their battle to stop the project.

A judge ruled last week that a lawsuit challenging federal transportation officials’ decision to allow All Aboard Florida to sell $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds to help pay for the rail line will continue.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper denied motions to dismiss the case, saying the bonds are key to All Aboard Florida’s ability to complete the second phase of the rail line, which will run between West Palm Beach and Orlando on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. The first phase of the project, between Miami and West Palm Beach, is already under construction.

Martin and Indian River counties filed federal lawsuits last year against the U.S. Department of Transportation challenging whether All Aboard Florida is eligible for the private activity bonds. All Aboard Florida is an intervenor in the suit.

All Aboard Florida won preliminary approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation in December 2014 to issue the private activity bonds.

The company had planned to sell the bonds in 2015, but the tight municipal bond market forced the officials to shelve the sale.

All Aboard has received two extensions to sell the bond. The company has until Jan. 1 to complete the sale.

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