In a dramatic reversal, Vero Beach’s mayor and city council now want to team up with Virgin Trains USA to develop a train and bus station at Vero Beach Regional Airport as the company forges ahead with its Miami to Orlando high-speed passenger rail project.
The proposal is an amazing turnaround from what most local officials have been saying ever since the high-speed train project was announced.
Up till now, there has been nearly unanimous opposition to the train project, with the county spending millions on lawsuits to block the rail service and the city expressing support for the county’s stance and passing an anti-train resolution as far back as 2014.
Now, with the county losing again in federal court and County Attorney Dylan Reingold advising commissioners there is no point in further appeals, the city has decided to try and work with the train company.
The council on Jan. 7 directed City Manager Monte Falls to try to negotiate with VTUSA representatives for a train station at the airport and quiet zones at the city’s railroad crossings.
Federal grants could be used to pay most construction costs for the multi-modal terminal proposed near Aviation Boulevard and the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, city officials said.
A Virgin Trains station at Vero Beach Regional Airport would enable city residents to take a train to Orlando International Airport in less than an hour, said City Councilman Joe Graves.
“I believe there’s a mutual interest in Virgin Trains having a stop in Vero,” Graves said during the Jan. 7 meeting. “I can’t reveal who told me what, but I do believe there is interest in them having a stop here.
“What’s worse than having high-speed rail come through our city, is having high-speed rail come through our city and not have a stop.
“If we had the ability for our citizens to get to the Orlando airport in less than an hour, it may solve the issue with having air service into Vero,” Graves added.
Virgin Trains started work in summer 2019 on new tracks from Orlando International Airport to Cocoa and improvements to the FECR tracks from Cocoa to downtown West Palm Beach.
VTUSA’s goal is to run 34 trains per day between Orlando and Miami by the end of 2022. Trains would reach speeds up to 110 mph in Indian River County.
Virgin Trains – previously known as Brightline and All Aboard Florida – started passenger service between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in January 2018 and added a Miami station that May.
The Vero Beach City Council’s consensus to seek talks with Virgin Trains about a train station came as Indian River County commissioners were considering whether take their court battle against the passenger rail project all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Reingold advised commissioners to accept their Dec. 20 defeat in a federal appeals court and forgo further appeals because of steep odds against success.
“I think it is best for the board and the county to focus on safety issues, such as supporting Sen. (Debbie) Mayfield’s bill, working with FDOT and closely reviewing Virgin Trains’ plans,” Reingold said.
State Sen. Mayfield (R-Melbourne) filed a passenger rail safety bill for the current legislative session that would strengthen regulations and increase Florida Department of Transportation oversight for higher-speed passenger rail lines like Virgin Trains.
Virgin Trains/Brightline killed 24 people South Florida in 2019, Federal Railroad Administration records show, and seven in 2018. Many of these were apparent suicides.
Meanwhile, the Indian River Neighborhood Association Board of Directors, which sided with the county in the court case, Friday passed a resolution urging the commissioner to petition for a writ of certiorari for Supreme Court review. The deadline is March 19.
“This is a disastrous project that should be stopped, period,” said Peter Seed, an IRNA board member involved in the case. “It’s dangerous, it’s disruptive, it’s going to have a very deep-and-lasting adverse effect upon our community and its residents. It’s so obvious.”
As for the idea of a VTUSA station at Vero Beach Regional Airport, Seed said, “I just think that’s a divide-and-conquer red herring.”