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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Brightline is bringing back passenger rail — but it can’t do it alone

Opinions generic
Opinions generic

At the start of every break, students crowd into buses, cars and airplanes to make the journey home. South Floridians like myself are well-acquainted with the contours of I-95 and Florida’s Turnpike. This journey can become costly, both in time and money. My five-hour commute to and from Miami costs over $400 annually on gas alone. Multiply that across every student, and the exodus looks glaringly inefficient. 

One possible solution has finally gained traction. Passenger rail is on the brink of a renaissance, with companies like Brightline leading the charge. The revitalization of railways represents a significant shift towards more efficient and sustainable modes of transportation. Brightline’s newest segment spanning 236 miles from Miami to Orlando opened to wild success in September of last year. The company plans to extend its service westward into Tampa, promising a more sustainable and economically prosperous future. 

Railroads were a crucial part of Florida’s history and development. Brightline’s success can be traced back to its parent company’s historical connection to the railroads that built the state. Florida East Coast Industries was founded by Henry Flagler in 1892, laying the foundation for Florida’s booming tourism industry. Gainesville was a key destination within this network, a legacy still visible throughout the historic district. 

Despite this rich history, the United States’ passenger rail network consistently lags behind the rest of the developed world. Brightline is the first to pick up that torch in decades. Cars became more accessible to Americans in the mid-20th century as state and local governments let their passenger rail industries fall by the wayside. This overreliance on cars, however, has had catastrophic implications for our environment and economy. 

More policymakers and private companies are setting their sights on passenger rail than they have in decades. This large scale investment is promising. One main reason why Brightline has found success while government-owned and operated Amtrak wastes away is because it markets itself as a fully private entity. This reputation, coupled with massive investments in luxurious mixed-use stations across the state, is intentional. 

Brightline has raised over three billion dollars in tax-advantaged Private Activity Bonds to help develop this network. Its marketing intentionally obfuscates this support from the public sector to make passenger rail more attractive to the American consumer. Brightline can capitalize off an image as a fully private company, seeming to operate at no risk to the taxpayer, while still accessing the state legislature’s deep pockets. 

Still, entrusting a private company to operate this public good can be problematic. Railways are typically a project for state and local governments. Taxpayers are losing the accountability inherent in electoral politics by allowing a private corporation to stake a claim in this arena. Under this model, service coverage, pricing, and quality are subject to the whims of the market. Rail jobs have long been viewed as dependable and resilient – two characteristics we have not seen from the job market in recent years. Public-private partnerships, though, mean that this project's long-term viability and sustainability now depends on the company’s financial health. While Brightline is boldly pushing us forward, its success may prove that future public sector investment in rail is possible. As we continue to imagine stronger, more sustainable cities, a future without cars is within reach. We must demand that our elected officials see the success of the Brighline as a catalyst leading us out of the precarity of the private sector. 

Amaya Borroto is a UF political science freshman.

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