Martin County has won a major victory in its opposition to the proposed All Aboard Florida (AAF aka Brightline) high-speed rail project. Late yesterday, in an important and favorable ruling for Martin County, U.S. District Court Judge, the Honorable Christopher Cooper, stated plaintiffs Martin and Indian River counties do have standing to proceed with the April 2015 lawsuit brought against AAF and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to stop violations of our nation’s environmental laws and the improper authorization of $1.75 billion in taxpayer subsidized bonds. The Order was issued after the Court heard arguments on June 30.
In the lengthy 39-page ruling: https://www.martin.fl.us/sites/default/files/meta_page_files/2016.08.16%20-%20Martin%20Co.%20-%20Redacted%20Opinion.pdf , Judge Cooper denied DOT and AAF’s motions to dismiss Martin County’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) claim. In the lawsuit, Martin County claimed DOT’s provisional December 2014 Private Activity Bond (PAB) allocation to AAF violated NEPA. This claim is similar to the NEPA claim in Indian River County’s lawsuit filed in 2015, but it highlights the specific harms that Martin County and its residents will suffer as a result of the AAF Project.
The Court rejected AAF’s often-repeated claims it wanted, but did not need, the taxpayer subsidized PABs to fund the project. The real story is the facts presented in Judge Cooper’s ruling with respect to AAF’s finances. The ruling stated, for example:
“First of all, PAB-based financing is not just the ‘current financing plan’ for the project-it appears to be the only financing plan.” (page 9)
“In the Court’s view, however, AAF’s commitment to the project-and to Phase II in particular-appears less credible and less firm than when the Court decided Plaintiffs’ preliminary-injunction motion fourteen months ago.” (pages 13-14)
“Whether because of concerns over the particular project or because of general market conditions, the implication is that the AAF project is seen in the bond market as a riskier proposition today than it was in 2014.” (page 19)
Martin County Attorney Michael Durham applauded the ruling, stating: “Judge Cooper’s opinion demonstrates that Martin County effectively used discovery to prove the issues its legal team had asserted a year ago, that Martin County had standing to sue for the violations of law and harm caused by those violations.”
Judge Cooper said Martin County and the plaintiffs demonstrated that without the bond allocation, the AAF Project is significantly less likely to proceed, and that the plaintiffs have adequately demonstrated that the DOT’s bond allocation violated NEPA.
Stephen Ryan of McDermott Will & Emery LLP, the County’s outside counsel, indicated the next stage of the case will include the DOT’s long-delayed production of the agency record, and further proceedings to bring the case to a swift final judgment.