Although Brightline does not plan to bring a high-speed train to St. Petersburg, the city plays a key role in Brightline’s expansion plans for Tampa.
“St. Pete is an important market. We think a lot of our travelers will want to come from Orlando to the Tampa Bay area to go to St. Pete Beach,” said Bob O’Malley, vice president of government affairs for Brightline, a privately owned and operated rail system based in Miami.
Brightline currently runs between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Phase Two will extend trains to Cocoa and to Orlando, followed by service between Orlando and Tampa, said O’Malley, who spoke Friday morning at Café con Tampa at the Oxford Exchange.
A train to Tampa would stop downtown and would not run to Tampa International Airport or St. Petersburg, O’Malley said. A train to St. Petersburg would be too expensive, he said.
But connections to other points in the Tampa Bay area are important, he said, and Brightline is counting on public initiatives, such as planned bus rapid transit routes, to provide that service.
“We want to work with the region to improve connectivity from downtown Tampa to St. Pete Beach, so we’ll be part of the conversations on regional BRT or whatever premium transit opportunities there are,” O’Malley told St. Pete Catalyst. “We have partnerships with Lyft and we’re always looking to find other ways to improve connectivity to our stations.”
Brightline has three components, he said. In addition to providing transportation, Brightline emphasizes hospitality. President and chief operating officer Patrick Goddard previously worked for hotel companies, and Brightline team members are trained to treat customers like guests.
“We want the experience to be pleasant from the moment you order you tickets and step into the station. We want you to be comfortable and relaxed and productive if you want to be productive,” O’Malley said.
It’s also a development company. Brightline has built Class A apartments and office towers near its Miami station, revitalizing what was a neglected and underutilized part of downtown, O’Malley said. The plan is to do the same in Tampa.
A Brightline trip between Tampa and the Orlando airport, where Brightline plans a stop, would take about 60 minutes, compared to driving, which can range from 90 minutes to three hours, depending on traffic, O’Malley said. The train would run at about 125 miles an hour, and he expects about 16 trains a day between the two cities. The price would be comparable to the cost of driving, taking into account both the cost of gas and hidden expenses such as wear-and-tear on a car.
The Miami-to-West Palm route cost about $2 billion, including $600 million in private activity bonds, a type of bond authorized by Congress to pay for infrastructure improvement. Brightline recently got authorization to sell $1.75 billion in private activity bonds for the West Palm to Orlando route.
But rail is still a “lightning rod” for controversy, and an Orlando-to-Tampa route is far from a done deal, O’Malley cautioned, citing several challenges that remain to be overcome.
Among them, an agreement from the state of Florida to use right-of-way in the Interstate 4 corridor. “They are accepting bids from other companies and they will evaluate those and negotiate with whoever they deem to be the best,” he said.
While there’s a lot of interest in the investment community for the private activity bonds, and the initial offering was oversubscribed, the next round of bonds has yet to be sold, he cautioned.
The November gubernatorial election also could have an impact. “We’ve met with both candidates and have good relationships with both of them … We think both will be supportive, but in different ways.”
It’s also important to be sensitive to the surrounding community when choosing the site for the Tampa station, he said.
Brightline also is looking at expansion outside of Florida. The company announced plans for a Las Vegas to Los Angeles train earlier this week, and is looking at other city pairs that make sense for rail.