Columns

All Aboard Florida: The Horror Behind Curtain No. 2

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: August 18, 2014 3:55 AM
I Beg to Differ

All Aboard Florida (AAF) is like a rigged "Let's Make a Deal" TV experience. 

They tell you the Big Prize is the shiny new passenger train service. But no matter which curtain you choose, you're going to get what's behind curtain No. 2 -- the freight-train nightmare from hell.

The flashy passenger train is the bait.

I was sorry last week to see the Florida Chamber of Commerce take the bait, even talk about the "high level of support from the local communities along the route that will each gain revenues, retail shopping enhancements, jobs and a reduction in traffic congestion."

Florida Chamber President Mark Wilson praised the project in an open letter to Gov. Rick Scott: “All Aboard Florida makes sense and we believe this privately-funded project is a good fit for securing Florida's future.”

Wait a minute. Not so privately funded as I and several other elected officials believed earlier in the year. 

I owe Sunshine State News readers an apology. In a March 20 column, "Martin County Very Much NOT All Aboard on Miami-Orlando Rail Line," my advice was to reserve criticism of the proposed Miami-Orlando rail project until the company presented its plans for fixing the chaos along the route. Those of us who gave AAF and Florida East Coast Industries the benefit of the doubt are now sorry we did.

It took me longer than it should have, but I am convinced AAF has little to no interest in solving the problems it's given to the Treasure Coast. 

Except for beefing up safety at rail crossings and paying to create "quiet zones" -- though even how much "quiet" these zones actually will provide is uncertain --  it doesn't look as if AAF or FECI is going to fix the things causing the greatest concern.

It's not the zippy passenger trains at seven-cars-and-two-engines-long that will hold up traffic on roads and water. It's the coming of the earth-shaking monster freight trains, one right after the other, rolling slow and heavy from southern ports -- that's what stirs fear in the hearts of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Treasure Coast residents.

Which is my point: The second set of tracks is being laid for expanded freight from super-tankers coming to Miami with the expansion of the Panama Canal. The passenger element is just window dressing. 

FEC is the exclusive rail provider for the Port of Miami and Port Everglades. In Miami, FEC has now completed building rail in and out. The trains can't go south, so you know where they're headed. The Fort Lauderdale port is next on the list, set to start dredging for the jumbo container ships when environmental studies are completed next year.

If something doesn't change, if this venture isn't slowed or, better, stopped -- starting in 2016 the Treasure Coast could see as many as 50 trains a day rumbling through major intersections, creating moving barriers to hospitals, schools, offices, major retail businesses and people's homes.

Just as bad, the railroad bridges would remain down far longer than they would up. All Aboard Florida would devastate the critical marine industry, for example, in Stuart -- a major component of the area's quality of life -- where two rivers flow into the Atlantic. 

But, at long last, federal-level elected officials have taken an interest in the financial viability of All Aboard Florida. Florida congressmen like Democrat Patrick Murphy and Republican Bill Posey have come to realize what a risky venture AAF is, that if the passenger service fails, the far more lucrative freight business won't -- that is will not -- be making good on the loan.

In a letter Thursday to U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, Posey demanded the Government Accountability Office (GAO) launch a viability study of All Aboard Florida’s proposed line. “... I have consistently opposed taxpayer subsidies for rail initiatives," Posey wrote. "I am, therefore, concerned about the potential exposure to taxpayers of all such projects including, but not limited to, the AAF application.”

Murphy was right behind Posey on Thursday, asking the GAO's Dodaro for the same study.

“All Aboard Florida’s plan to run 32 additional trains daily through the Palm Beaches and the Treasure Coast of Florida poses significant threats to our community's public safety, economy, and our way of life,” Murphy insisted. “Although initially sold as a ‘private’ project, AAF is actually seeking more than a billion dollars in taxpayer-backed loans from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). ... (The) financial viability must be thoroughly reviewed."

As Broward Bulldog pointed out in an April 29 report, "All Aboard Florida: Boon or Boondoggle?" FECI’s corporate tree "now includes 10 to 12 entities and nearly all are LLCs, from which company officials can simply walk away” without liability should serious problems develop."

At the top of AAF’s corporate hierarchy, the Bulldog put Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund that purchased Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) for $3.5 billion in 2007. Florida East Coast Railway, meanwhile, is an affiliate of FECI and operates freight trains throughout Florida. Florida Trend magazine claims it is an independent company owned separately by Fortress.

AAF officials have said the company expects initial annual revenue of $143 million. The question is, given a 5.75 percent interest on a $1.5 billion loan, and other costs like salaries, will there be enough left to make it a viable operation?

Answers to the money questions, if they continue to be unsatisfactory, present local residents with their best chance of knocking off those extra 32 train trips a day.

Sadly, the problem remains -- the nightmare behind curtain No. 2, Big Choo Choo as it's called, an onslaught of freight trains, 100 or more fully-loaded cars at a time.

It's hard to imagine anything changing that. FECI has put too much money into port egress already.



Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith 


Comments (18)

John Guidinger
6:50PM AUG 19TH 2014
Freight is going to move on the railroads and long distance freight should move more on railroads and move less on the highways. I think most people who live along railroads have accepted trains passing by and perhaps having to wait at highway grade crossings where grade separation has not been installed.

I have attended many public meetings on proposed transportation infrastructure changes and made and heard many comments. Some are good comments and the people proposing the project should listen and make the necessary changes. But, I have also heard much irrational anger based on illogical assumptions and misinformation expressed at these meetings and in the news media after the meeting. I think people who over react with anger at any possible change to rail facilities or to other transportation changes can often get caught up in an inner rage that cannot be cooled by learning about the project and applying rational reasoning. These people may also have a need to drive controversy, perhaps to make themselves feel important. I wonder if Ms. Smith is starting to show symptoms of becoming irrational on this rail project.

We pour billions of tax dollars into roads, airports, and waterways with no thought of every getting a single cent returned. We justify the expense by having an infrastructure that provides transportation benefits to us all and helps our economy operate. Looking at the highways and railroads that have been built I am sure many long forgotten NIMBYs who exaggerated the negative impacts and ignored the benefits got their their feelings hurt when the project was built and successfully operated.

I see nothing wrong with making government loans to railroads to assist them in building new transportation infrastructure that will provide us all with freight and passenger benefits. Large companies who ship on the railroad employ our friends and neighbors and supply us with products at price we can afford. This is how our economy works. The wealthy people who live on Florida's Treasure Coast need a strong economy as much as those who cannot afford Treasure Coast beach houses and must live along inland rail routes and interstate highways and near airports and government-funded waterways.
Howard
10:01AM AUG 20TH 2014
I've read herein a number of comments attesting to the importance of rail transportation, and would like to add the following personal thoughts to the mix.

MOST of us are well aware of the importance of being able to move people and things by rail. Where a goodly number of us differ and 'draw the line', however, concerns just WHERE rail traffic should and should not be concentrated. The eastern seaboard of Florida is a place where PEOPLE gather and LIVE THEIR LIVES; it is NOT a place where rail traffic should be concentrated. Yes, we DO like the idea of reasonable passenger rail service running through The Treasure Coast (especially if we can enjoy access to it); I am sure a number of our people would take advantage of an ability to travel LONG distances (i.e., north and south in the eastern US). Such was Flagler's dream when he first envisioned his railroad, and even the movement of some freight through our cities and neighborhoods could be (has been) acceptable. BUT, when rail traffic is projected to essentially paralyze us by blocking our streets and waterways FOR MOST OF THE TIME EACH AND EVERY SINGLE DAY, we have NO choice but to bow our backs and RESIST!!

One other most dreadful realization in all this is that, with high-speed and literally unstoppable behemoths running right through the hearts of heavily populated cities and residential communities EVERY FEW MINUTES, there WILL BE frequent and ongoing deaths as people misjudge how quickly such trains can be upon them -- AND OVER THEM. The death toll could be absolutely frightening!

So, what are some solutions? First, there is virtually made-to-order railroading ALREADY IN PLACE running northwest from West Palm Beach and then northward through relatively unpopulated areas of Florida, all the way to the Orlando area AND BEYOND. THAT is where ANY massive railroad venture should be looking to develop and, if for any reason THAT would not suffice, then the developers should be looking at some alternative perhaps paralleling the Florida Turnpike. I believe either of these options makes far more sense than destroying the eastern seaboard of Florida simply because a railroad company owns its property.

Sorry folks, but the appearance to me is that AAF is a false screen hiding far more ambitious plans by deep-pocketed developers who unfortunately also have some heavyweight politicians responding to their every command.

This horrible railroad fiasco should never see the light of day, especially along The Treasure Coast of Florida.
Rick
6:23PM AUG 19TH 2014
I've been dealing with train safety and quiet zone issues for 10 years here in West Palm Beach where we got a quiet zone finally on the CSX tracks. I strongly believe that the people opposed to the AAF project are not seeing the forest through the trees. If (and when) the FECI wants to have more freight traffic along the FEC corridor, they would simply increase the number of trains and they wouldn't need any permissions of any kind...or if necessary build a 2nd track...and then FEC would not be required to so any safety upgrades. The safety upgrades are an issue because of the speed of AAF trains. In my view, there is no doubt that the AAF project represents the best possible chance for communities to raise funding for higher safety standards to achieve quiet zones along the entire stretch. If AAF doesn't launch, then we'll never get quiet zones....keep that in mind the next time you hear a train going by. If AAF is launched but then fails, the quiet zones stay in place.
Howard
5:39PM AUG 19TH 2014
The Florida Chamber of Commerce BELONGS to the 'BIG Monied' interests, and has little interest OR KNOWLEDGE (nor any desire to learn) of how ALL COMMUNITIES from at least central Palm Beach County northward through Martin, St Lucie and Indian River Counties feel about this horrible railroad project. By far not the least of resultant problems will be the ongoing succession of accidents, DEATHS and other tragedies as the unstoppable monsters race right through the very hearts of unconcionably vulnerable community after community after community on the VERY CROWDED EAST COAST OF FLORIDA!! This would be one of THE VERY worst things that could possibly happen to Florida! I cannot understand why THE POWER OF EMINENT DOMAIN is not being earnestly applied.
Frank
11:04AM AUG 19TH 2014
So, just to get this straight . . . . all of you opposed to AAF are voting for Charlie Crist & Patrick Murphy (who both oppose AAF) . . . . while all of you supporting AAF are voting for Rick Scott (who supports AAF) . . . . correct . . . . . yeah, thought that partisan hypocrisy was showing, particularly on one side screaming about AAF . . . .

Pathetic . . . .
Julian Rogers
8:27AM AUG 19TH 2014
People and freight are going to move. That is a basic freedom. Of course, if you are willing to accept that you can take away an individual's right to use their property without compensation, then you would be only a small step from prohibiting travel between South Florida and Orlando, and prohibiting freight from moving from China to Atlanta.

So, unless Ms. Smith is advocating a law prohibiting the movement of freight and people, it is a question of how it is to move. She seems to advocate that all this would be better moved on I-95 and the Turnpike. This traffic, both persons and goods, can be freely trucked through our county on the two arteries we have. It takes a huge increase in labor, fuel and air pollution to move things or people by diesel truck, bus or rental cars, but it can be done. There are actually 20 lane freeways in parts of this great land. Of course, that is the method that takes the most energy, generates the most pollution, requires the most asphalt (paid for by taxpayers) and, unfortunately kills the most people in road accidents.

While the rest of the country is organizing against more freeways, spending money to remove semi-trucks from the highways, and petitioning for a passenger rail alternative to the almighty automobile, it is amazing to watch our citizens expend time and energy to argue exactly the opposite.

Remember the slogan for NOT ALL ABOARD is "Let them drive SUVs"

Julian Rogers
Hobe Sound
Concerned Citizen
7:04AM AUG 19TH 2014
Thanks for this excellent column Ms Smith! You are exactly right about the nightmare of 50 or more freights rumbling through the Treasure Coast, plus 32 AAF trains. 80+ trains fed day, over 3 per hour. With minimum 20 minutes of bridge down-time for each train, that won't allow much access to the ocean for our vital marine industry.
Victoria Huggins
3:44PM AUG 18TH 2014
PoliFacts rates this "private/private" venture MOSTLY FALSE. That's because it does have significant public funds being used by AAF. This truly is no longer a private venture. Now they are using MPO funds to upgrade the crossovers in Palm Beach and Broward Counties? Is AAF going to request the MPO's in Martin, St Lucie, Indian River and Brevard Counties give them funds also?

Look, the contract for the 528 (Beachline Rd) should be under review. When a contract contains language which equates to "no train stations or stops will be built from north of West Palm Beach to Orlando" there is some major issues with it. All because the State of Florida FDOT doesn't want to lose the toll money from the 528.

Shoo-Shoo Big Choo-Choo!

Thanks Nancy for finally getting the light bulb moment.
Dr. Frank McCluskey
2:29PM AUG 18TH 2014
I know of nobody in Delray Beach County that is favor of this but it is moving at warp speed. Every day there is a new PR piece or a new promise of jobs and economic growth. The East Coast of Florida is not what it was when Flagler built the rail line. There are millions of people along this route and the fifty trains a day will be a disaster and everybody I know knows it. After this is done, and we are probably unable to stop it, we need to hold our elected officials responsible for this train wreck.
Dr. Frank McCluskey
2:26PM AUG 18TH 2014
I know of nobody in Delray Beach County that is favor of this but it is moving at warp speed. Every day there is a new PR piece or a new promise of jobs and economic growth. The East Coast of Florida is not what it was when Flagler built the rail line. There are millions of people along this route and the fifty trains a day will be a disaster and everybody I know knows it. After this is done, and we are probably unable to stop it, we need to hold our elected officials responsible for this train wreck.
Bill
1:42PM AUG 18TH 2014
Tri rail is pretty much used by people to get to and from work. It is 80 percent government subsidized. A real loser for most taxpayers. Sat for 30 minutes at a crossing the other day for just one train in Brevard county. Cars lined up for miles on route 1. And it's going to get worse?
DanC
12:30PM AUG 18TH 2014
The people riding this train are not the people who live in Southeast Florida. What will it take for people in Southeast Florida to understand that this train is not for you? Stop thinking people won’t ride this train.

The two primary target markets for this service are tourists, and business travelers. It’s for tourists to avoid the hassle of flying the short distance between Orlando or the inconvenience of renting a car. You think “How is not having a car convenient?” Tourists don’t know the roads. Flying takes up a lot of wasted time. Flying isn’t cheap for a family of four. It will cost them more than $400 to fly to Orlando. The train will cost less than $200. And the fact is that if you’re a tourist in Orlando you don’t need a car. More so if you’re only going to Disney.

To a business person flying short distances is a waste of time. Driving 300 miles is a complete waste. They can’t accomplish, much if anything if they drive or fly between SE Florida and Orlando. They might get 30 minutes in the airport waiting for a flight to open a laptop and be productive and another 40 or so on the plane. For a three hour trip nearly two thirds of it is wasted time. Driving is worse because they have to do the driving and they are completely unproductive for three hours.

To say all railroads are unprofitable is completely false. Freight railroads in the US are very profitable. Look at the earnings of CSX, FEC, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern. Railroads are exceeding earnings projections every year and their stock prices are on the rise. More freight in the US moves by rail than truck. Much more than most people realize and at a lower cost than by truck.

If you think AAF is all about adding freight traffic, you need to re-think your opinion. FECI can add 40 freight trains this week if they want to. They don’t need permission from anyone. There isn’t any regulation that can stop an increase in service. None. Railroads are federally regulated. The states have no say in their operations except for safety issues at crossings and other insignificant and minor issues.

Crossings are owned by the railroad. There isn’t any “right” to cross FECI tracks which are private property. When roads were built the governments responsible for the roads had to ask permission to cross the railroad. They knew full well that rail traffic could decrease or increase. That can be mitigated by the road owner building an overpass.

Like it or not, when the Panama Canal expansion is complete there will be more rail freight traffic. Nothing can really stop it from happening.
SMM
9:31PM AUG 18TH 2014
Check out the Southeast Florida freight rail planning document CARGO 2040 on page 18 under the heading FECI it says, "AAF will double capacity"...they may not need another set of upgraded tracks - but they sure would like one! 32 speed rail trains per day may not stop traffic for very long - but freight pulling over, stopping and then starting up again on side rails (like St. Lucie Village) will be a nightmare. When you add the traffic and boat navigational problems to the millions of taxpayer dollars going to retrofit roads and long term maintenance it spells tax boondoggle - and all for tourists and business travelers. Good for them! Acela in the northeast has a market 12 times the size of SE FL and it runs at a deficit when you add in corporate overhead and capital expenses...don't kid yourself - AAF will not make a dime...just hope all of those Fortress LLC's open their bank accounts...not!
Oscar
9:00AM AUG 18TH 2014
Tri Rail was established in 1987 as a commuter rail between Miami and West Palm Beach. It had, at its inception, about 30 trains daily on a single track corridor that included a single track crossing over the new river without quiet zones. There were not significant problems with its implementation.
The line was double tracked a few years ago and it currently serves 50 passenger trains daily as well as a significant number of freight.
I have never read of any concerns.
Traffic in South Florida is much heavier than in the Treasure Coast.
Dave West
8:37AM AUG 18TH 2014
All Aboard Florida will be renamed ETOTEC. Empty Trains On The East Coast. We can also look forward to 32 noise bombs and traffic delays each day. Diminished home values are also likely. All so this company can update their infrastructure on the backs of the taxpayer.
RepublicanConscience
6:33AM AUG 18TH 2014
Every railroad is a loser and cost the taxpayers to subsidize it. It is a fact that passengers will not use the system because they need a place to park on one end and transportation to the destination. They all become economic sink holes. Bad idea and when the Chamber of Commerce is that stupid to promote it, the Chamber is worthless and members should vote with their feet.
Julian Rogers
8:37AM AUG 19TH 2014
Every highway is a loser. Not one "makes a profit". Transportation is an expense for every person and business. To discriminate against rail, which is highly efficient, and throw billions in the asphalt pool is a waste we can no longer afford.

Should all freight move by semi-truck and all people move by car. What a vision for the future. Energy wasting, polluting and inefficient in use of labor and capital is the result of such love of a government solution (roads) instead of a private solution (rail).

Is this where Republicans have ended up?? You are advocating government deciding basic capital investment questions because they are wiser or more honest, or better at it than capitalists??
Brian
1:08AM AUG 19TH 2014
AAF comes to Fort Lauderdale promising a huge train station,
offering all these wonderful amenities, restaurants,retail,condos,
hotels,jobs,etc. Then they design a scaled down version. Then they
plant a story in the Sun Sentinel last week claiming that they need the
Broward County Bus terminal to really make their dream come true.
The Broward County Bus terminal was acquired in 1984 at a cost of
11 million dollars, and is now worth well over 60 million dollars.
AAF want to trade a much smaller property a block north that they
recently acquired for a few million dollars for Broward County's Prime
Bus terminal. Broward County actually talked about this possible trade
at their last week commission meeting, postponing their decision for
three months. The entire county will be watching what these commissioners decide, and what special treatment AAF might get.
Tens of thousands of local residents have already signed petitions
asking commissioners not to trade the county's crown jewel property
for political favors. The Florida Sunshine law will surely be used.
The Broward County residents love the present Broward County
bus terminal, that took decades to acquire and build.
Stand up to AAF and let them acquire their own prime property.

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