Citizens Against Rail Expansion: ‘AAF seeks multi-billion $$$ DOT-subsidized loan, taxpayers at risk’

Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (CARE FL) continues to actively pursue all appropriate legal, political and public communication channels to stop the ill-conceived All Aboard Florida (AAF)/Brightline rail project that threaten the public safety and current way of life of communities throughout the Treasure Coast. (Source: CARE FL)

Documents confirm AAF is seeking a new Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).  AAF and DOT have done their best to prevent the public from knowing this, and it is the latest example in AAF’s insatiable quest for public subsidies. 
 
When AAF and DOT “voluntarily” withdrew the $1.75 billion Private Activity Bond (PAB) allocation in November 2016, the action was a direct result of the August 2016 victory in the U.S. District Court, which ruled that the PABs were subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Since that time, AAF has been seeking a new DOT subsidy to fund Phase II of its project—the phase that will run from West Palm Beach to Orlando, directly through the Treasure Coast.
 
On April 13, CARE FL’s and Martin County’s lawyers filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with DOT to obtain information on the new RRIF loan.  On June 1, 21 and 27, DOT finally provided some of the requested documents.  We now have an incomplete record of emails, phone calls and meetings between Florida East Coast Industries (FECI)—parent company of AAF—and DOT officials regarding a new RRIF loan.  AAF’s letter of intent to apply for RRIF was sent to DOT on April 11, and since that time AAF/FECI and DOT have been working through the details of the application process. 
 
We understand but have not been able to confirm that the RRIF loan amount being sought by AAF is $1.75 billion.  What a coincidence—the same amount as the defeated PAB allocation.

This new RRIF loan application poses many new risks to U.S. taxpayers. There are no guarantees that AAF will be able to repay the loan.  Based on conclusions from economic experts that AAF cannot demonstrate how this project will be financially feasible, repayment will always be in doubt.  If AAF cannot repay the loan, taxpayers will be on the hook for potentially billions of dollars.
 
Disingenuous Congressional Testimony By AAF
 
In related news, Michael Reininger, Executive Director of FECI, testified before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials on June 22, at a hearing titled “Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America: Challenges and Opportunities for Intercity Passenger Rail Service.”
 
U.S. Congressman Brian Mast (R-FL-18)—the Treasure Coast community champion—is a member of the House Transportation Committee and participated in the hearing.
 
During his opening statement, Mr. Reininger described AAF as a “private sector model” for passenger rail operations and discussed the need to streamline the regulatory process at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)—part of the DOT.  He stated that the required environmental review process has been a disincentive to private investment and bemoaned the length and complicated nature of the process with respect to AAF, noting that it has been four and a half years and the process is still not over.
 
The delay described by Mr. Reininger is solely the tactical result of the decisions and actions of AAF and the FRA.  After the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was issued in August 2015, AAF and FRA made a decision to not issue a Record of Decision (ROD) which would have completed the process. The FEIS has been out and growing stale for almost two years, and they’ve been withholding the ROD to prevent the public from having the opportunity to take legal action against it.
 
After opening statements, members of the Transportation Committee had the opportunity to pose questions to Mr. Reininger and the other witnesses.  Rep. Mast directed a series of hard hitting questions at Mr. Reininger.
 
First, Rep. Mast highlighted AAF’s relentless quest for public dollars, despite claiming to be a private enterprise.  He highlighted AAF’s original RRIF loan application from 2013, its $1.75 billion Private Activity Bond (PAB) allocation that was ultimately withdrawn due to a successful legal challenge by Martin and Indian River Counties, and more than $200 million in state dollars for an intermodal facility at Orlando International Airport (a facility in which AAF may be the sole tenant), to name a few.  Mr. Reininger spun each one as not being a public subsidy, despite evidence to the contrary.
 
Next, Rep. Mast turned to the maintenance costs for the rail crossing upgrades that are being left to the counties—aka, the local taxpayers—to pay.  Mr. Reininger answered by referencing the longstanding agreements that Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) has with the counties, but Rep.

Mast immediately shot back, pointing out that the agreements are not with AAF, and that the counties are being asked to pay for maintenance costs associated with AAF, not FECR.
 
Finally, Rep. Mast turned to the issue of the antiquated rail bridges along the AAF route—the Loxahatchee and St. Lucie bridges.  Earlier in the hearing, there was a discussion with another panelist about a 106 year old bridge on Amtrak’s northeast corridor route.  Rep. Mast asked the panelist representing that bridge rehabilitation project about the importance of fixing aging bridges.  After it was confirmed that fixing aging infrastructure is indeed important, Rep. Mast then turned to Mr. Reininger, asking why the Loxahatchee and St. Lucie Bridges—bridges completed 80 years ago—were not being replaced.  Mr. Reininger’s evasive answer implied that the bridges were not that old, and that his company would be making improvements.
 
CARE FL is very grateful for Congressman Mast’s continued recognition of the threats that the AAF project poses to his constituents, and we thank him for his ongoing support.
 
As we have previously noted, AAF was forced in early 2017 to publicly acknowledge that Phase II would be delayed by more than two years, blaming the delay on the need for additional permits and not having adequate financing in place.  Since its inception in 2014, CARE FL has persistently pushed forward to get the important facts out about public safety, environmental and financing concerns related to the AAF project and related increases in freight rail, and this acknowledgment from AAF is a clear sign we have made progress over the past three years.

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