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Columns

No More Railroad Boondoggles!

April 4, 2019 - 9:00am
Susan Mehiel
Susan Mehiel

Back in 2011, California's Republican Congressman Devin Nunes said about the now defunct California high speed rail project, "It is clear that high-speed rail is not about jobs. It is about corruption, public deception and bureaucratic experimentation.” 

And it took nine years to kill the monster.

Is it any wonder people are wary of the All Aboard Florida Virgin Trains' U.S. Private Activity Bond requests totaling $2.7 billion after reporting 2018 losses of more than $117 million and lagging ridership figures?  Every rail expert will tell you these projects always have major cost overruns and lengthy delays.  

Already, All Aboard Florida has experienced both. They originally announced their route from Miami to Orlando would be up and running by 2015 and the cost would be well below $2 Billion. With lingering unknown costs including the land and development expenses for the new double-track stretch from Cocoa Beach to the Orlando Airport and the possibility of new regulations for their higher -speed trains, who really knows when and how much?

The deception and experimentation are both true for the so-called private speed train project.  For years, the Florida Department of Transportation told Treasure Coast residents the Federal Railroad Administration was the governing authority for safety requirements.  Last winter, the FRA admitted Florida state statute gives FDOT that authority.  As for experimentation, no rail system in the world combines trains going 110 mph on the same tracks as freight trains carrying hazardous materials.

The Virgin Trains US' 32 higher-speed trains per day will cross over 340 streets at grade through four counties without stopping; this, too, is experimental.  What makes it even more experimental is the fact that a recent study by the Florida legislature’s Office of Public Policy and Government Accountability revealed FDOT has no regulations governing trains going 80–125 mph. With 17 people already dead on the system’s segment where trains reach a maximum speed of 79 mph, FDOT’s negligence is alarming. 

Virgin Trains US has grand plans to build higher-speed rail throughout the state and in other areas of the country.  However, Randal O’Toole, author of "Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need", cautions, “High-speed rail proposals are high-cost, high-risk megaprojects that promise little or no congestion relief, energy savings, or other environmental benefits. Taxpayers and politicians should be wary of any transportation projects that cannot be paid for out of user fees.”

For their business plan to work, Virgin projects it will attract 6.6 million riders once the leg to Orlando is complete. However, Amtrak’s Acela line operating between Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C., with twice as many miles of track and four times the number of stops, only garnered 3.4 million riders in 2017.  With cheaper Tri-Rail competing for the Miami-to-West Palm market, and cars and planes competing for the longer route, O’Toole’s comment about user fees should raise some eyebrows.

Taxpayer dollars from local municipalities are already picking up part of the tab because they are required by ages-old crossing agreements with Florida East Coast Railway (now owned by Grupo Mexico) to cover the maintenance of new, expanded crossing equipment in perpetuity.  They will incur other costs as the 120-plus crossing beds on the Treasure Coast are widened for a second or third rail and streets will need to be retrofitted for the expansion.  

But the real question -- who picks up the tab if, like so many other passenger rail projects, Virgin Trains is not profitable?  Of course, if Virgin Trains US fails, Grupo Mexico will walk away with new double freight capacity … and the passenger service?  The experts and the experience show this is far from a sure deal. 

The Florida Development Finance Corporation should consider the plight of all Florida taxpayers and not approve the next group of Private Activity Bonds until there is a clear indication that the system will be financially viable.  We don’t need another California boondoggle on our hands.

Susan Mehiel is the coordinator and communications director for Florida Alliance for Safe Trains.

Comments

"As for experimentation, no rail system in the world combines trains going 110 mph on the same tracks as freight trains carrying hazardous materials." This is incorrect. On Amtrak's Northeast Corridor their 110-125 mph trains run with 110 mph commuter trains and freight trains that carry hazardous materials on a regular basis.

In the UK its commonplace too, and guess what, it works amazingly. There hasn't been a serious UK rail incident in years, far far more people die in car accidents.

The proposed second phase does not go from Cocoa Beach to Orlando, rather West Palm Beach through Cocoa (a different city like Miami is to Miami Beach) and west to Orlando International Airport (OIA). No stops are planned between West Palm Beach and OIA. Further, the are no on grade crossings on this 40 mile westward run. RR travel is much safer than road travel, the carnage I see on I-95 has anathezised us to its peril. And don't compare the UK to Florida, we are the eight densest state with 120 yearly tourists! Many are European and Asian accustomed to train travel who will gladly dispose with car rentals and intrastate air travel, the two sectors that will be affected by Virgin. As to your hazardous cargo mixed with passenger trains, this already occurs on roads and highways with common and tragic accidents of fuel tankers routinely causing infernos and closing highways for half a day affecting whole regions of the state.

You obviously don’t live anywhere near the route, Route 1, that Virgin trains will take. It is very true that these trains will fly through many crossings at such speeds, blowing horns every 20 minutes, with no regard for the traffic tie ups and inconveniences that the residents will put up with. There will be NO benefits to the many towns these trains will go through. I believe that there are 34 crossings in Indian River County alone. The tourists you mention, both foreign and native, will not visit the Treasure Coast any more but will go elsewhere where a vacation is a vacation! The economy of the east coast of Florida will die as each town and city is cut in half by the trains every 20 minutes. The real estate values will plummet. Trains with no stops can’t make the east coast better!

The first line of your article Tells me that the rest of it is not worth reading. California High-Speed Rail is still being built.

Have you seen any national news lately? CA HSR is the laughing stock of even the CA lefties!

The moment I saw that level of dedication to facts (aka:none), I knew I was in for a fun ride reading this "article."

It is unconscionable that our government leaders are so quick to spend other peoples' money (OPM) on a "public service" project that the citizens on the east coast neither want nor need! It just goes to show who's REALLY in charge in Tallahassee and DC - LOBBYISTS! Grupo Mexico should not get one dime of taxpayer monies or loans in the form of private activity bonds, of which, after Virgin fails, taxpayers again will be forced to pick up the tab - with Grupo Mexico laughing all the way to the bank!

The entire project is privately funded, no one is getting any taxpayer dollars.

Truth be told, Virgin Rail is private funds, not public funds. The private activity bonds are purchased by private investors, not public tax dollars. If the rail fails the private investors are taking the risk. The rail line is privately owned and the rails system is backed by private investors. As such, taxpayers are not at risk. Just the facts.

Bill Hall explains how All Aboard, The High Speed Train Brightline/Virgin, is really about running more freight up the east coast to the whole country because of the widening of the Panama Canal. This is the end game: more freight traveling throughout the southeast of Florida not about commuting passenger travel. https://youtu.be/6jYUMEphGO8

Just think how much better off we would all be if the railroad did not haul the freight, nor passengers, but it all came up the roads in trucks and buses. Perhaps all the extra air pollution and traffic accidents and road maintenance would be a well deserved punishment for all the residents who have expended money and time fighting the railroad. Americans love their highways and their cars so much they are willing to die for them.

Why would they spend the tons and tons of extra money building the line to strict US passenger safety requirements if the goal was freight movement? It wouldn't make any sense, freight lines are much cheaper and easier to build.

The statement above is flat wrong. FEC Railway (the freight company owned by Grupo Mexico, and both of which have no ownership in Brightline) already has sufficient capacity on existing tracks to handle current demand and future growth. The widening of the Panama Canal has not and will not result in any increased traffic on the FECR corridor. The economics of shipping a container to Miami and then railing it north on FECR and then transferring to a Class 1 railroad (Norfolk Southern or CSX) just doesn't work. It makes much more economic sense to ship to Savannah, which is more central to the Southeast U.S. and has on-dock rail connections to both NS and CSX. In fact, that is exactly what has happened. The Port of Savannah has seen tremendous post-Panamax growth while Port Miami has only seen growth related to Florida-bound cargo, all of which leaves the port by truck. The Grupo Mexico conspiracy theory is dishonest.

Sorry - but it is ALL ABOUT FREIGHT!! When Brightline completes all of its plans to go to Tamp and Jacksonville - Grupo Mexico will have DOUBLE freight capacity to all of the deep water ports in Florida - this is NO coincidence. Fortress Investment Group's grand scheme is to turn south Florida into a complex Liquefied Natural Gas producer and exporter. They've already received permission to ship LNG by rail from their plant in Hialeah to the Miami port. They're negotiating contracts in Mexico and other countries to build LNG storage facilities at their ports. This plan began shortly after they purchased FECR and was up and rolling when Governor Scott was elected and it was suggested he turn down Obama's HSR money and his support behind All Aboard Florida. Fortress sees the FECR route as a "virtual LNG pipeline".

You: "It's all about freight!" Him: "Actually, here's a bunch of easily verifiable facts that show you're wrong." You: "LET ME HAVE MY ALTERNATIVE FACTS!" Seriously, your response is the equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and going, "La la la! I'm not listening!" Maybe actually try and disprove what he said (you can't) instead of spouting more fake news?

You gotta love Devin Nunes,.. He's always been "one of the sharpest cards in the Congressional Deck" (in EITHER Political Party)!!!! "Passenger trains" are the historical, epidemy "black hole money pits" of *$Taxpayer dollars$*!

Every high speed rail critic complains about the high cost over runs. The Interstate Highway System cost 5 times more than its projected cost. Also, why should we ask that they make a profit? Do highways make a profit? No, they don't. They are a public service just like trains are.

The highway system is totally TAX SUPPORTED. Virgin Trains claims to be private but needs indirect subsidies from tax-exempt private activity bonds and millions in crossing fees go to Grupo Mexico - the owner of the tracks. By the way - those highways you're comparing this to - they are on limited access, 'sealed corridors', not through densely populated communities and the speed limit is 70 mph. Virgin Trains will go 110 mph crossing 120 streets at grade, not fenced and in the hearts of our towns! You pay for them with YOUR tax dollars and move them west of town!

I think the whole CA train thing is fantastic. CA should go for it. I will learn more about the carving out of mountains, how trains behave in sunny farming environments and the taking of private property. Just be sure to do it on your own dime - not mine as I do not directly benefit since I'm from the Midwest. All I need is a Wal Mart. My Ford Pinto gets me there just fine.

We need those trains to transport 44 million illiterate "Illegally Invading Aliens" throughout Florida and America,.. so we can better imitate California's "death spiral" failures, that are currently "educating" all of America to the "folly of open borders" and "Sanctuary Cities"! ! !

The train system in Europe is an excellent working model. Follow its example!

The high speed trains in Europe and Japan have elevated or tunneled tracks instead of crossing over 300 at grade crossings. They were built for safety and to not inconvenience pedestrian or vehicular traffic. You cannot compare the two. Additionally, those trains do not run on the same tracks as volatile LNG, a tragedy in the making. Please compare apples to apples. BTW, one of the Virgin train systems in Great Britain just went broke and had to be renationalized by the government and the second is on a short leash. So much for Branson's expertise.

You clearly don't understand how UK train systems function. Virgin owned 5% of the operating company, Stagecoached owned 90% of the operating company, and the government owned all the rolling stock, ticketing systems, tracks, infrastructure, everything. "Virgin Trains East Coast" was not much more than a Virgin advertising ploy for a Stagecoach operated, UK Government owned railway.

Yep, ironically it was the East Coast line(!) and they defaulted on a 3BILLION+ pound sterling loan from the British Government.

The train system in Europe is heavily subsidized and doesn't cross 340 streets at grade. Yes, follow THAT model and move the tracks out of our towns and up the center of the state where 2 independent studies already concluded the route along I-95 or the Turnpike are far better.

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