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High-Speed Rail Regulations Picking Up Steam

Shawn Mulcahy

In the wake of recent fatal railroad accidents, Florida lawmakers are looking to impose stricter regulations on high-speed rail. The bill is moving through the Senate.

Melissa Lavell was struck and killed on January 12 after apparently trying to beat an oncoming Brightline high-speed train in Boynton Beach, according to police. Less than six days later, Jeffery D. King was struck and killed five blocks away from where Lavell died. Police said King was doing the same thing.

The newly-completed Brightline high speed rail is managed by All Aboard Florida and runs from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale, with planned expansions stretching from Orlando to Miami.

Following these fatalities, U.S. lawmakers are calling for investigations.

State Senator Debbie Mayfield (R-Vero Beach) is proposing stricter regulation of high-speed trains. Under Mayfield’s bill, the improvements will all be paid for by the rail service.

“I have filed Senate Bill 572 in an effort to get high-speed rail safety measures in place, to protect the residents of our community across the state and to make sure the costs of these safety measures and upgrades are not shifted to the taxpayers," says Mayfield.

Mayfield says this is not an attack on All Aboard Florida. She says lawmakers are open to working with the organization to find mutual solutions that will keep Floridians safe.

“We embrace the high-speed train – the passenger rail – we just want to make sure it’s done the right way," continues Mayfield.

Over in the House  Representative Erin Grall (R-Vero Beach) is carrying a similar bill. Her proposal would to define the scope of oversight by state and federal departments and shield taxpayer money from being used for railroad upgrades.

“Due to the tragic deaths in South Florida it is clear that we must be diligent in our efforts to define the scope of oversight by the Florida Department of Transportation versus the Florida Rail Administration," says Grall. "There can be no pointing fingers any longer. We cannot stand idly by while perceived ambiguity around federal law results in greater loss of life.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran says Grall’s measure will have movement this session. But he adds legislators must also consider the private business rights of companies like All Aboard Florida.

Critics of the bill say it could have a negative impact on the private business and could end up costing the state.

Speaking before the Senate Transportation Committee last November All Aboard Florida’s Rusty Roberts argued that the state shouldn’t interfere with the private sector.

“Why is the Legislature being asked to prevent a private company from reinvesting in its property, from creating a safer transportation corridor, from investing billions of dollars in the state and from creating thousands of jobs," says Roberts. "It is really simply this. It’s not just about safety, but it’s about three counties along the east coast who do not want any increase in railroad traffic through their county.”

If passed, the bill would require high-speed rail providers to finance massive upgrades to the rail systems. This includes smoothing out bumps, installing technology that remotely monitors tracks and building additional fencing along intersections.

The Florida Department of Transportation would also conduct an audit of current protocol and might suggest additional regulations.

Shawn Mulcahy is a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU. He graduated from Florida State University in 2019 with majors in public relations and political science. He was previously an intern at WFSU, and worked as an Account Coordinator at RB Oppenheim Associates.