BY SUSAN BURGESS
Douglas Moore stood in the parking lot of Cindi’s Pet & Aquarium Center, a few feet from the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. About a year ago he opened a letter that changed the future of his 25-year-old business.
“I received a letter one day from All Aboard Florida,” he says. “It said what they were planning to do and told me that we are partly on their right of way. In fact, it comes within 2 feet of the back of our building.”
What he learned was that All Aboard Florida plans to start running passenger trains on the FEC tracks behind Cindi’s and thousands of other businesses and residences along the tracks 32 times a day. What worried him was the same thing that worries most others who live in Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie counties near the tracks: Frequent high-speed passenger trains and longer freight trains will change their way of life, and not for the better.
People are in an uproar over safety, noise, traffic congestion, emergency response delays, a drain on taxpayers for crossing maintenance and falling property values – within as little as two years if they can’t stop All Aboard Florida, a passenger service that won’t even make a stop on the Treasure Coast.
“We will inaugurate service from Miami to West Palm in late 2016, and from West Palm Beach to Orlando in mid-2017,” AAF spokeswoman Lynn Martenstein says.
But opponents working to defeat the project say they’re just getting started.
“It’s not a done deal,” says Palm City resident Kasey “K.C.” Ingram-Traylor, the founder of Florida NOT All Aboard.
All Aboard Florida does not have the go-ahead from the Federal Railroad Administration for a loan it needs to complete the massive project or approval for private bonds it hopes to sell and use for financing. It also has to contend with a lawsuit filed by Indian River County in federal court challenging the legality of the bond issue.
Meanwhile, Moore says the fate of his pet supply business is up in the air. He owns the business in Vero Beach but he was told that his landlord will have to pay a usage fee to use the railroad’s right of way. “I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Moore says.
Moore, like many other Treasure Coast residents, is incensed. He reels off a list of complaints: The railroad crossing on 8th Street, just to the north of the building, will be closed frequently causing vehicle backups; drawbridges will be closed more than half of every hour; the animals in his store will be heavily stressed by the frequent rumbling vibration from the trains, according to his vet.
The high-speed trains with miles of unfenced track will endanger pedestrians and animals, will delay emergency responses, could damage historic buildings due to vibration, disrupt the boating industry with closed drawbridges and is already causing residential property values to fall, train opponents point out.
The ongoing All Aboard Florida saga was first made public in 2012 when the proposal to begin passenger service using trains running faster than 100 miles an hour between Miami and Orlando was announced in a press release, followed by a presentation to the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.
With board members from Treasure Coast and Palm Beach counties, the council oversees developments that have regional impact and provides a forum for analysis and discussion of regional issues.
By September, the regional council learned that preliminary engineering was beginning. By December, the council had written a glowing letter of support for the new train service to the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C.
In the densely populated area of Miami and Broward County, it made sense to have a fast passenger rail service, the council says in its letter. It even meshed with the goals of transportation organizations on the Treasure Coast, the council added. It also advised the railroad to work closely with local governments.
But in May 2013, at about the time when local governments, goaded by angry residents and boaters, began to reverse their support for the project, the council modified its stance, noting potential benefits of passenger service but also raising a number of Treasure Coast concerns.
All Aboard Florida spent much of 2013 working on a draft of an environmental impact statement required before it could gain approval from the FRA for its application for a $1.5 billion loan. The FRA hosted a series of meetings to get input from the public that May. But most people on the Treasure Coast had never heard of AAF and many of those who had did not realize that no stops were planned between West Palm Beach and Orlando.
As details of the plan spread, so did the frustration on the Treasure Coast, even though the majority of the population south of West Palm Beach seemed to view the train service favorably.
At first, local elected officials talked hopefully of stops in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties, even discussing why theirs was the best county for a stop. But All Aboard Florida says it could not remain competitive with other modes of transportation if it had to make even one additional stop.
As the speed and number of trains became public knowledge, many residents and businesses told local officials they didn’t want stops and they didn’t want trains, period. They wanted the train to go west on the CSX railroad tracks instead of running through the historic downtowns of small cities and little St. Lucie Village.
“We don’t have ownership rights on the CSX tracks,” Lynn Martenstein says. “We do have an easement to run a passenger-rail service within the FEC rail corridor. We’re using an existing corridor but making $1.5 billion worth of improvements to it.”
The draft EIS was released to the public in September 2014, and received more than 12,000 comments by Dec. 3. The state didn’t send its own comments in until March, after its agencies and some departments finished reviewing the 522-page draft EIS.
In the meantime, several organizations sprang up that were dedicated to stopping the railroad in its tracks. The most vocal among them was Florida NOT All Aboard, founded in February 2014.
“FNAA grew legs on its own,” Traylor, 44, says. “I didn’t really know what to expect, especially since most people didn’t seem to know much about the trains.” But a push by Eve Samples of Treasure Coast Newspapers and Jana Eschback, a reporter with WPEC-TV, sent the nonprofit’s supporters skyrocketing.
“I really feel this is a paradise, and I really want to protect it,” Traylor says.
By April her petition had 53,000 signatures opposing AAF’s plan. In March, she went to Washington and presented Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-18, with a stack of petitions. “I do plan to continue to collect signatures and distribute the petitions to the appropriate people,” she says. “I do plan to send them to our governor as well. I have kept the originals and they may end up being sent to President Obama at the appropriate time.”
Two more citizens groups formed about the same time: Citizens Against the Train and CARE-FL, (Citizens Against Rail Expansion), a group with financial clout from southern Martin County.
Traylor and CARE-FL leaders have met with state and federal officials to plead their case. Traylor praises Murphy for his continuing efforts to help FNAA and the Treasure Coast communities.
“He came to our first rally on May 5, 2014, along with some county commissioners, and I really didn’t know if anyone would even show up,” Traylor says. “But 800 people came to that rally and it was a real turning point because a bunch of people volunteered and then I knew we were on our way.”
The Treasure Coast counties have help from Rep. Bill Posey, R-8, who represents Brevard and Indian River counties and from state senators and representatives. One notable exception is Sen. Marco Rubio from Miami.
All Aboard Florida points out the thousands of temporary jobs that will be created and will put money in the pockets of Treasure Coast workers, but critics are not satisfied.
“AAF did not realize the kind of people they were trying to steamroller,” Traylor says. Not only did the issue become intensely political before the 2014 elections, with voters demanding to hear candidates’ positions on AAF before heading for the polls, but Martin and Indian River counties include some of the wealthiest people in the state ― people whose backgrounds include running major corporations and who are no strangers to high-stakes corporate strategies.
Martin and Indian River counties are not taking All Aboard Florida’s plan to run trains at high speeds through their rural areas and downtowns lightly, nor is Fort Pierce Mayor Linda Hudson, whose cash-strapped city hasn’t money to pay for a long legal fight.
“It will hurt our city,” Hudson says. “I don’t think All Aboard Florida has given enough thought to what it will do to our area. We’ve been lost in the shuffle. Fort Pierce can’t afford to pay for increased maintenance at our six crossings, but Seaway Drive and Orange Avenue at Avenue A are particularly vulnerable to accidents.”
And she fears that drivers will opt for the Citrus Avenue overpass, choosing to cross above the tracks and wearing out the old structure instead of waiting for trains to pass at the Avenue A intersection where the city garage, historic Arcade building, historic city hall, current city hall and a new federal courthouse are all clustered.
Martin and St. Lucie counties appropriated $4.1 million this year to do battle with AAF. In Martin County, money was set aside for outside legal counsel and studying the impacts of All Aboard Florida while the City of Stuart worried about impacts on parking, on already congested traffic circles, and on its historic downtown.
Indian River County has already filed suit in federal court, claiming the U.S. Department of Transportation unlawfully approved the issuance of $1.75 billion in private activity bonds for All Aboard Florida and seeking “an annulment” of the approval because an environmental impact statement had not been completed.
When seeking the bonds, the railroad did not withdraw its application for a $1.5 billion federal loan.
Indian River also plans to hire safety experts for a traffic study, says Commissioner Bob Solari.
“For me, two things are clear,” Solari says. “This is not a done deal, and it will take a lot of well-directed work to make a challenge succeed. It will be at least a two-year process, maybe three years. It is important for everyone to understand it won’t be over quickly and there will be a series of highs and lows. We all just have to stay focused on our goals.”
St. Lucie, with a population far larger than either of its neighboring counties but with much lower per capita income, took the cautious route, first using money from the county attorney’s budget to determine a strategy, followed by discussion of allocating $1 million to its challenge.
In the meantime, Treasure Coast sheriffs declared in a joint statement that closing crossings for passenger and freight trains would delay first-responders who needed to get across the tracks. All Aboard Florida disagrees: The 900-foot passenger trains would clear crossings in less than 60 seconds, it says.
But Tequesta Mayor Abby Brennan worries about trains blocking its three crossings if the Loxahatchee Bridge gets stuck in the up position, she said in March 2014. A year later, almost to the day, the bridge stuck and a train blocked two of the village’s three crossings, forcing drivers to take a long detour. The railroad apologized and said it was taking steps to prevent a repeat.
The tracks cross three major navigable rivers – the New River in Fort Lauderdale, the Loxahatchee and the St. Lucie River.
Bridges in the up position can cause problems for Treasure Coast drivers, but bridges frequently in the down position, stuck or not, will cause major headaches for boaters, including boats responding to emergencies, says Bill Biggs, who runs the Riverwatch Marina in Stuart.
“People may not realize how big the boating industry is,” he says. “We have about 15 marinas and if people can’t get to the ocean, we’ll be out of business.” He estimates that the drawbridge over the St. Lucie River will be closed for 49 minutes out of every hour, based on how long it takes the span to open and close.
All Aboard Florida says it plans to reduce the closing of drawbridges to a minimum, possibly by coordinating the timing of trains over bridges so that the bridges stay down while more than one train crosses instead of closing bridges for each train.
But Biggs and others say that captains have a hard time keeping their boats from hitting each other due to wind and current, and the longer they wait, the more chance they’ll collide.
The Marine Industries Association of the Treasure Coast, noting that the marine industry is worth more than $18 billion to the state’s economy ― three times what All Aboard Florida says its trains will accomplish ― and employs more than 200,000 people, called the blocking of marine navigation by locked-down bridges an “unacceptable impediment of vessel navigation and causing economic devastation to the marine industry and residents located west of the railway bridges.”
AAF should run all of its nonlocal passenger and freight trains on the CSX tracks north of Palm Beach, the association says in a resolution approved by its board of directors.
From the beginning, train opponents nicknamed AAF “All About Freight” due to expectations that with expansion of the Panama Canal and increased cargo coming out of Port of Miami, Florida East Coast Railway would significantly increase the number and length of freight trains using the same tracks as the passenger trains.
“All Aboard Florida is spending $1.5 billion to improve rail infrastructure to support an express passenger rail service. These improvements are not necessary for freight operations,” Martenstein says.
PROPERTY VALUE DECLINE?
As the controversy over All Aboard Florida heats up, many residents who live within 1,000 feet of the tracks say that their homes were worth less as soon as awareness of increased trains became common knowledge.
After residents began reporting a drop in property sale prices, Martin County property appraiser Laurel Kelly made plans to get facts in hand with a $60,000 study of property values.
Realtor Julia Sansever says sales of waterfront property in North River Shores, on the St. Lucie County/Martin County border, fell through twice before finding a buyer who didn’t mind trains.
Jensen Beach resident Phil McAdam was one who discovered his property value dropped. “It’s absurd,” he says. “Our waterfront lot was worth $125,000 and sold for $70,000. And there is the safety issue. Houses back right up to the tracks. We have children and grandchildren to worry about. People walk across the tracks all the time, and they have no idea how fast a train at those speeds will be upon them.”
Keith Ullrich, who lives on South Hutchinson Island, says, “My main concern is getting across the tracks. I can’t tell you how many times trains have stopped across the tracks for 20 minutes at a time.” Ullrich worries about ambulances, police and fire trucks.
“The hospitals are up in arms, the police are up in arms, and I see rallies in opposition to the trains but I don’t see any rallies in support of AAF where they are waving their arms in support of the train,” Ullrich says.
Train supporters on the Treasure Coast have been largely silent, aside from posting remarks on the FNAA Facebook page and a few regulars posting comments under stories in the local paper.
But Indian River Commissioner Solari in Indian River County hasn’t been silent. He is optimistic that with a lot of work things will end well for the Treasure Coast.
“In a broad, general sense it could destroy our community,” he says. “In a specific sense, what if a school bus gets stuck across the tracks? Many in our community believe the AAF project has the ability to destroy our communities, but most know that it is not a done deal. And if we work hard together, I think we can stop All Aboard Florida.”