Brightline’s high-speed LA to Vegas rail project gets crucial financing

The 270-mile line got federal approval for tax-exempt bonds; a Florida project has spurred development along the line but struggled with ridership

Patrick Goddard, President at Brightline Trains, and Brightline’s Florida line (Credit: Brightline)
Patrick Goddard, President at Brightline Trains, and Brightline’s Florida line (Credit: Brightline)

Brightline, the company behind a high-speed rail project between Las Vegas and Los Angeles has cleared a major financial hurdle.

Majority-owned by Fortress Investment Group, Florida-based Brightline announced that the federal government approved its DesertXpress project for tax-exempt bonds, putting the long-planned project “on track to break ground by the end of this year.” While the coronavirus has forced the suspension of Brightline rail service in Florida, the company said it has not affected construction of its planned Orlando rail line.

Last year, California authorized a $3.2 billion tax-exempt bond issuance for the West Coast project, which had been proposed more than a decade ago. Brightline acquired it in September 2018.

Brighline, soon to be rebranded as Virgin Trains USA, didn’t say whether the pandemic would delay completion of DesertXpress, which it previously had said would be completed in 2023.

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If completed as planned, estimates are the train could cover the 270 miles between L.A. and Las Vegas in about two hours, half the time it now takes.

The company currently operates a high-speed rail between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. It also developed two apartment towers above its Miami station.

While the Florida line has spurred development along its route, it has also struggled with ridership. The company laid off 250 workers in late March after suspending service. It extended that line to Orlando, and will complete that extension in 2022, according to its Twitter account.

Brightline is rebranding this summer as Virgin Trains USA. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group took a minority stake in the company last year. Fortress will continue to manage the company and has retained its majority stake.