ORLANDO — Virgin Trains USA has received approval for its next round of bond sales to finance its expansion to the Orlando area, while indicating more of its plans for service in that area.
Friday’s approval by the Florida Development Finance Corporation board of directors means the state authority will be the conduit to sell another $950 million in private activity bonds.
That decision came a day after Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson formally began the company’s transition from Brightline to Virgin Trains USA, participating in the event rebranding the company’s MiamiCentral station [see “Virgin Group’s Branson highlights MiamiCentral rebranding,” Trains News Wire, April 5, 2019]. At that event, Virgin officials revealed that service to both Walt Disney World and SunRail’s Meadow Wood station south of downtown would begin at the same time as service between Miami and Orlando International Airport. Following the hearing, a project manager told a Trains News Wire source that Diesel Multiple Unit shuttles would likely be used to make those connections.
Not all of the route engineering has been finalized, so it is unclear whether mainline trains to Tampa will also make the Disney and SunRail stops when the company begins Orlando-Tampa service.
Building tracks to Tampa, using the median of Interstate 4, won’t begin until conclusion of the construction to bring Virgin Trains service to the Orlando Airport. That will require 128.5 miles of Florida East Coast right-of-way north of West Palm Beach to Cocoa, Fla., to be upgraded to 110-mph operations with double track, as well as quad gates and automobile presence detectors at highway crossings. The work also includes a 125-mph sealed corridor between Cocoa and the airport. Construction is expected to begin within months and take about three years.
The 3 to 0 vote approving the bond sale followed more than two hours of comments. Supporters in attendance included former U.S. Rep. John Mica; detractors from Indian River County argued the project is not financially viable, but their concerns were undercut by the sale of $1.75 billion in private activity bonds just before Branson’s visit [see “Virgin Trains USA raises $1.75 billion in bond sale,” Trains News Wire, April 4, 2019].
The financing was especially gratifying for retired Brightline executive Gene Skoropowski. As the company’s senior vice president of railroad operations, he was the principal architect of the Brightline service. He was also instrumental in planning the Florida Overland Express high speed network decades ago before it was cancelled by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
“It was a very exciting week!” Skoropowski tells Trains News Wire. “Finally, after many ill-fated attempts, Florida will have a modern, frequent, and reliable intercity passenger rail service. I have been awaiting this day since I started my intercity passenger rail work in Florida in 1994.”