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What you need to know about Brightline’s plans for high-speed rail in Tampa Bay

Veronica Brezina

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Brightline train. Image provided.

High-speed intercity rail operator Brightline is now planning to have a station in Ybor City by 2028. 

Christine Kefauver, senior vice president of corporate development at Brightline, presented an update to the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization last week, providing new information of the Phase 3 planned Orlando-to-Tampa alignment, which will connect the Orlando International Airport’s intermodal center with Tampa.

Brightline has multiple stations throughout South Florida. The envisioned Orlando-to-Tampa route was planned years ago, but the timeline continued to be pushed down the road. However, 2028 is the latest anticipated date for a Tampa station, and documents filed with the TPO confirmed the station would be in Ybor, although an exact address was not listed. 

A map of Brightline’s alignment for Tampa. Image: Brightline/Hillsborough County documents

Ybor has long been at the top of the chart of potential station sites in Tampa. Like Brightline’s stations in South Florida, Brightline would own the Ybor location. 

“We would own a station here, but if there’s a larger solution and that there are other partners as a part of that solution, we are happy to engage,”  Kefauver said during the meeting.  

Meanwhile, Brightline will be one of several possible tenants of the Orlando International Airport’s transit terminal, built to accommodate the Central Florida commuter train SunRail and any other future light rail. 

Brightline is currently finishing its West Palm Beach-to-Orlando route connection, which is 73% complete. Kefauver said Brightline expects to have the South Florida-Orlando station completed by the end of this calendar year, and operational in 2023. 

Brightline’s trains would travel from the Orlando airport using an Orlando Utilities Commission rail spur and existing SunRail tracks to then travel on State Road 417 to the Disney World area, where Brightline plans to have a station. The connection to I-4 would then be used to connect into Tampa. Brightline and the state completed negotiations for right-of-way access along the I-4 corridor in February.

Kefauver added how Brightline is working with city staff in Tampa to make sure that it doesn’t negatively impact the city’s plans of reworking its grid network, and to also be wary of the impact on surrounding neighborhoods. 

“The last thing we want to do is disrupt communities,” she said, stating Brightline will abide by the regulations for development within Ybor and wants its station close to the interstate corridor. 

“The city has been great to work with on height limitations and making sure we take that modern station [designs we have] and incorporate it into the flavor of Ybor’s aesthetic,” Kefauver said. 

She noted how the Ybor City station would have offerings such as bike or scooter parking and sharing areas. 

“When we get to Tampa, that first- and last-mile mobility is critical,” she said. 

Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen, who sits on the TPO board, pointed out how Brightline can connect with the TECO Line Streetcar system in Tampa, the bus agency’s operations and Amtrak as well as connections to the Cross-Bay Ferry linking Tampa and St. Petersburg travelers. 

The more the region can centralize residents’ ability to choose from different modes of transportation, Cohen said, we will have a “real functioning transportation network.” 

Brightline expects the Orlando-to-South Florida trains to reach a speed of 125 miles per hour between the two metros during the three-hour-long trip. From Orlando to Tampa, they expect the trains to reach 150 mph. The existing trains that travel along the East Coast typically have an average speed of 79 mph. 

Earlier plans show the Orlando-to-Tampa route would be a roughly one-hour commute.  

Kefauver said Brightline’s trains are more fuel-efficient than flying or driving. She said it is also a greener mode of transportation, as it uses biodiesel and incorporates recycled steel in its rail lines. 

Previous public records showed Brightline’s rail system from Orlando to Tampa would create thousands of jobs and $787 million in federal, state and local tax revenue over the first 10 years.

Concurrent to working on the local Florida extensions, Brightline is also developing a route from California to Las Vegas.

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