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Nancy Smith

Martin County Very Much NOT All Aboard on Miami-Orlando Rail Line

March 19, 2014 - 7:00pm

Martin County isn't used to taking no for an answer, but it might find defeating All Aboard Florida a too-steep hill to climb.

You remember All Aboard Florida, right? It's the proposed higher-speed rail service set to operate along the Florida East Coast Railway on the Atlantic Coast. The service would connect Miami with Orlando via a roughly 240-mile route north from Miami to Cocoa, where it would turn west toward Orlando.

The train won't stop in Martin County, but that's not why local residents are mad enough to bare-knuckle box the railroad, the governor and the federal government all at the same time.

What residents most fear about All Aboard Florida is that the private passenger rail service has so far given them no chance to voice their concerns -- which begin and end with Stuart resident Donna Robinson's fear that "this thing will tear our tranquil life apart and destroy the county's vital marine industry."

Robinson, who is one of more than 2,500 to sign a petition against All Aboard Florida, told Sunshine State News, "The county commissioners are urging the railroad to move this service to the CSX tracks in Indiantown, out where Amtrak travels. That's what most of us want to see. We can get behind that." (By the way, CSX and FEC both told me moving the venture west isn't going to happen.)

She said All Aboard Florida will create 32 additional trains daily, doubling the number now running through the heart of Hobe Sound, the city of Stuart, Rio and Jensen Beach. That many crossings, she explained, will paralyze boat traffic. And she's right.

All Aboard Florida does not intend to replace the railroad bridge across the St. Lucie River. Openings still will be required. If the full schedule of passenger trains a day were running, boat traffic would be backed up from 35 to 45 minutes per hour between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

This is a serious safety hazard and represents the marine industry threat Robinson is talking about. Certainly citizens need to engage the U.S. Coast Guard, which has jurisdiction over the bridge.

But it doesn't help anybody for the local press to flail away at imaginary demons. These are the folks whonot so long ago liked railroads and the stimulus money to build them.

The Stuart News attacks the railroad, the Federal Rail Administration, All Aboard Florida/Fortress Investment Group LLC and, of course, the governor.(I can't link the story for you because of the newspaper's paywall; it is on the front page of the March 12 edition.)

For starters, Florida East Coast Railway has been there for more than 125 years. Not a single living soul in Martin County moved there before the railroad came to town. It is sovereign. That means it isn't even like a local airport -- Witham Field in Stuart, for instance -- which local government can make largely to its own liking. It has a lineage that traces directly to Henry Flagler and it owns a significant swath of land through some of the Florida east coast's most valuable real estate.

In the second place, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) is not as the newspaper portrayed it, just "big government" writing a report. It's an arm of the Obama administration, which has made rail travel one of its priorities, and it has a great deal of power over the All Aboard Florida venture. I guess I'd just like this newspaper to throw the president under the bus for his policies for once, as it does the governor so often for his.

Which brings me to Gov. Rick Scott.

All Aboard Florida aims to be the first privately owned, operated, and maintained passenger rail system in the United States. Why wouldn't Gov. Scott support such a thing? He loves private enterprise, hates the strings attached to most federal projects. Nothing revolutionary there.

Scott turned down $2.4 billion in federal stimulus dollars for an Orlando-to-Tampa high-speed rail link and cited three reasons: predicted construction cost overruns would put Florida taxpayers on the hook for $3 billion; low ridership would have required state subsidies; and if the project were shut down, the state would have to return the $2.4 billion to Washington.

Scott says he wants to spend $215 million on a railroad hub at Orlando International Airport for All Aboard Florida. That's smart money. The state would own the hub, allowing other private ventures to connect from there, maybe Orlando-Tampa and Orlando-Tallahassee lines. Scott has pledged $215 million this year and $92 million next. It's well within the governor's philosophy for bolstering business, tourism and jobs and, frankly, within the $74 billion state budget, too.

The Stuart News castigates Scott for accepting campaign money from All Aboard Florida and its various levels of parent companies. But all you have to do is look at Rep. Patrick Murphy's campaign, or the president's, come to that, or any one of more than two dozen politicians, Republican and Democrat, looking for another term. As the Florida Times-Union said of All Aboard Florida, "Their political contributions have reached every corner of the state."

All Aboard Florida's engineers inspected all 28 of the county's rail crossings Feb. 28. A second track will be added to FEC's 100-foot right-of-way. But those upgrades don't include the additional gates and other features required to create "quiet zones" throughout the county.

I think Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith, a former president of the Florida Association of Counties, struck the right tone when he said, "The railroad was here first and they are sovereign. ... This is a privately funded project so we're not going to be able to stop it. We should be concentrating on mitigating its effects on our citizens ... in whatever way we can."

That has also been the advice of Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart: Cool it and let's all try to make the best of it for the community.

Screaming for meetings where more screaming is sure to ensue isn't going to lessen the number of trains or shorten the closings of the railroad bridge. I sympathize with Donna Robinson and other Martin County residents sure to be affected by this change. But Martin doesn't have many cards to play on this one and that's why citizens need to be cagier. The FRA and All Aboard Florida say they'll meet with residents when they've got their ducks in a row. So, why not back off for now, hold constructive intracounty meetings, look for ways to compromise. That's the way to coax them to the table.


Give the other stakeholders at least a couple of months to deliver.

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

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