Q&A: All Aboard Florida Responds to Sunshine State News
Around the State
All Aboard Florida, the proposed higher-speed rail service set to operate along Florida East Coast Railway, has erupted in controversy along the Treasure 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. But it would not stop in Martin, St. Lucie or Indian River counties. Residents there say they will get zero benefit while their quality of life is diminished considerably.
They cite more frequent closed rail crossings and the St. Lucie River railroad bridge, more noise from heavier trains, certainly no jobs for local people from the venture -- just cost to local taxpayers and a dangerous disruption of life as they've known it.
In order to encourage conversation among all stakeholders involved, All Aboard Florida's Michael Reininger, president and chief development officer, and Julie Edwards, chief marketing officer, agreed to answer Sunshine State News' questions in a telephone interview Thursday and in a question-and-answer format.
Here now are eight sets of questions, with answers, SSN posed to these officials:
Q: Do you anticipate an increase in freight on this same line, particularly after the Panama Canal project is completed? And, would you consider leasing CSX tracks for freight traffic, if not for all freight, at least any additional freight traffic?
A. The state of Florida has made significant infrastructure investments in its ports, which is one of the state’s biggest economic generators. As part of that investment, the state and Florida East Coast Railway have also invested in rail connections to those ports that will allow for the greater mobility of goods and services throughout our region, which creates jobs, delivers products to the consumers and reduces roadway congestion.
Additionally, U.S. DOT, FDOT, Florida East Coast Railway, CSX and the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority have invested in the construction of connecting the South Florida Rail Corridor and the FEC Railway Corridor, which will allow for the movement of freight traffic from the FEC to the South Florida Rail Corridor between Miami and West Palm Beach.
Q: How much time do you anticipate the bridge over the St. Lucie River in Martin County will have to be closed for the current freight load and the added passenger rail service? Local estimates are 9 hours minimum per 14-hour day, without any increase in freight traffic. Do you plan to move more freight during nighttime hours to reduce the number of freight cars during daylight hours?
A: These questions are being addressed as part of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process that’s being led by the Federal Railroad Administration and reviewed by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Q: What is the anticipated speed of passenger trains through Hobe Sound and Stuart? What is the exact decibel level of the train without the whistle? What is the decibel level of its whistle?
A: Track speed for passenger trains ranges from 60-110 mph through Hobe Sound and Stuart, depending on the track geometry. Curves and bridges often dictate lower speeds.
An analysis of train noise and vibrations is included in the EIS. The train horn is within the range of 96-110 decibels by law.
Q: Rusty Roberts, vice president of corporate development at Florida East Coast Industries, said some portions of the track will need to be three-tracks wide. Where are those anticipated to be?
A: There will be limited amounts of triple tracking within the Florida East Coast Railway corridor located by St. Lucie Village and Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
Triple track, like double track, is a series of adjacent mainline tracks built to allow multiple train movements at various speeds and directions. Unlike passing sidings, which are constructed to hold trains that have come to a complete stop, triple track is like an additional lane on a highway built to keep traffic flowing.
Q: When AAF first announced this project, you said it would be a $1.3 billion project, privately funded, yet you have applied for two $600,000,000-plus federally backed loans. That's not private funds, but considering that cost, what is the total cost of the entire project?
A: We have applied for an RRIF loan. This is a federal loan program that is funded and was designed to encourage and support projects precisely like All Aboard Florida that produce significant public benefit, infrastructure improvements and economic development. To date, all of the spending and all of the support for the project has come directly from our own resources.
If an RRIF loan is approved for the project, it will go through a rigorous independent financial analysis and be part of an overall capital structure that includes a very large piece of additional cash investment and collateral of our other hard assets. Any loan must be fully repaid according to the terms of the program by All Aboard Florida. As an entity, our own investment and collateral provides security to the loan. Any returns to us as a company come only after the payments against the loan have occurred, so in that way, our investment is subordinate to the loan. We see no benefit until the loan is covered.
Let me add that the entire initial investment in the legacy company and all of the many millions of dollars spent directly on advancing the project over the past two years have been privately financed.
Q: In the Stuart-Martin County Chamber of Commerce presentation, Rusty Roberts mentioned that a freight car maintenance facility would be built by AAF as part of the Orlando hub. Why can that not be located in an area on the Treasure Coast instead -- somewhere that would add jobs to the local economy?
A: Miami and Orlando are the two terminal stations of the All Aboard Florida system, meaning that every train starts and ends its day at one of these locations. To minimize deadhead (nonrevenue) train miles, vehicle maintenance facilities for passenger systems are located as close to the system endpoints as possible. Orlando had sufficient land to accommodate the maintenance facility in close proximity to the terminal station, and thus provided the most reasonable location to service and layover the All Aboard Florida passenger train sets.
Q: The sentiment along the Treasure Coast is to stop the project completely. How do you plan to assuage the Treasure Coast's concerns, of which Martin is just one county among at least three with growing local and loud citizen activism? Is there even one benefit to the Treasure Coast that will come out of this project?
A: We feel fortunate to have received the kind of broad-based support from residents, business leaders and elected officials locally, regionally, across the state and at a national level. The introduction of express rail service into one of the most important economies in the country is an opportunity for Florida to lead in another area vital to growth, and we think the recognition of this is in large part what drives the strong support we are receiving.
The return of passenger rail has been discussed and desired in Florida for decades. The project has had overwhelming support across the state due to the economic impacts in job creation, increased tax revenues, and alternative transportation options for a state exploding in population growth and visitor numbers year after year. As with any important infrastructure improvement of this level, the economic impact and benefits will be felt by cities and communities all along the route as a result of increased mobility, economic activity, job support, tax revenues and the follow-on investment and support that results from the cycle of growth that will be catalyzed through our investment.
Of course an undertaking like this requires a lot of education to make known all the important facets involved. And given the first-of-its-kind nature of this project, the education challenge is made that much bigger. We continue to meet and have direct dialogue with many groups across each of these counties along our route, participating in hundreds of meetings, and working hard to inform everyone about the project. One measure of our effectiveness is the number of requests we have received for future stations from places such as Jacksonville, Tampa and even the Treasure Coast, as the recognition of the potential becomes known.
Q: Will all communities along the route have to pay for their own "quiet zones"?
A: All Aboard Florida continues its unwavering commitment to the safety of our railroad, as well as full compliance with the improvements needed to achieve this level of surety while complying fully with all applicable regulations and laws. Since the project's inception, we have worked in full cooperation with the Federal Railroad Authority (FRA) and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to determine what is required for the safe operation of this new, first-of-its-kind passenger rail service.
For example, last September, All Aboard Florida announced its commitment to pay for the safety improvements at the grade crossings along our route that will be required for the reintroduction of passenger rail service. This significant investment by All Aboard Florida to pay for the grade crossing safety enhancements allows the local governments to focus on seeking the funds for any additional infrastructure improvements needed to improve the grade crossings to the level of quiet zones.
It is important to note that per federal regulation, the entity with jurisdiction over the road (public agency) that crosses the track can apply for a quiet zone. This includes all municipalities, counties and special districts. Railroads cannot apply because they do not have jurisdiction over the roadway.
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Apart from answering specific questions about Treasure Coast concerns, AAF officials made a point of saying that complaints about the rail project are in the minority up and down the proposed route, and the greater good for Floridians -- in essence, for all Americans -- transcends most of the problems they've seen arise so far.
"All along the way in the last year we've been sitting down with city planners, city commissioners, everybody involved and we've had tremendous support," said Edwards. "I think it's only a small pocket on the east coast (who oppose it), and we don't want that to overshadow the majority who are fully engaged with what's to come."
Reininger agreed. "These issues (on the Treasure Coast) are largely driven by misinformation and misunderstanding. They represent a very small minority in the overall tenor of what we see and hear every single day."
When asked to give an overview of where All Aboard Florida is today, Reininger insisted the implication of the projects, the positive benefits to the state and even the nation, are mind-boggling.
"Whenever you're undertaking something on the grand scale of this endeavor, there are lots of things you have to deal with on a day to day basis," he said. "But you must never lose sight of the perspective that is central to the mission.
"The fundamental idea here is, we are making a major investment in an infrastructure that will create a stream of benefit, that will immediately impact everybody in the state of Florida in one way or another. We are beginning a cycle of benefit on this investment that is long-lived."
Reininger concluded, "Just think ... this is being done with private investment dollars, which is extremely rare. Before, something like this was only contemplated with full financial support of public dollars. We are achieving the same fundamental goals without that kind of public-sector funding support."
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.