Commissioner Bob Solari: Burdens, no benefit
By Jessica Creagan
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY -- A private company's plans to bring high-speed rail passenger trains to Central Florida and South Florida by way of the East Coast has many groups in Indian River County wanting to yank on the emergency brake cord.
Last week, the Vero Beach City Council and the Indian River County Board of County Commissioners spoke of their grave concerns with the All-Aboard Florida high-speed passenger rail project connecting Orlando International Airport and Miami.
Commissioner Bob Solari said when the idea was initially presented he was neither for nor against the privately-funded enterprise project. After hearing various presentations, including one in front of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, Commissioner Solari said he was not in favor of the project.
Financial information requests of All Aboard Florida representatives have not been answered in an open and transparent manner, and some financial and planning questions have been evaded, Commissioner Solari said.
In addition, All-Aboard Florida has requested a federal loan from the Federal Rail Administration worth $1.5 billion, money that belongs to taxpayers, to work on the project, which he doesn't support, Commissioner Solari said.
"For me, this is just another example of corporate welfare where the gains privatized but the risks are put on the back of the taxpayer," he said.
Kim DeLaney, strategic development coordinator for the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, is scheduled to present information about the project at the April 22 county commission meeting and at the May 14 county metropolitan planning organization meeting, county staff said.
All-Aboard Florida is a sister company of the Florida East Coast Railway and the high-speed passenger trains would use the railway's lines, which cut through many small towns along the Treasure Coast. Representatives say the company wants to have 32 trains per day using the tracks and initially the trains will only stop in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
Representatives of the rail company have declined to share company financial information, voicing privacy concerns, but some information has been gathered from various local committees and government officials.
Not having financial information makes it extraordinarily difficult for a government official or citizens to make a decision on whether to support a project or not, commissioners said.
"We're not even getting the information," said Commissioner Wesley Davis.
"If they're going to play that game, I'm out," he said.
The Indian River County Chamber of Commerce released a press release with a bulleted list of information that has been made public about the project.
According to the list, the 32 trains would travel at about 110 miles per hour and would run from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Currently there are 14 freight trains that use the existing train tracks that pass through Indian River County and they travel at 45 miles per hour.
Federal law would require that the high-speed trains blow their horns 15 to 20 seconds before reaching a railroad crossing that intersects with a road, unless there is a "quiet zone."
Quiet zones are noise abatement sections with enhanced safety features that would help make sure no one will accidently be on a track when a train comes through.
Florida East Coast Industries would pay for initial costs of mandated safety upgrades at all crossings, but the maintenance subsequently would fall on the county or cities of Sebastian and Vero Beach, the release said.
In late March, the Sebastian City Council also discussed the project and were scheduled to vote on a resolution asking that the state or the railroad company pay for any costs the city may incur because of the high speed rail system, including installation of "quiet zones" at crossings. At press time, the results of the April 9 meeting and resolution vote were not available.
Exact figures have not been released, but it is estimated that a normal-sized railroad crossing with a quiet zone could cost $200,000, while a wide crossing, such as the one on State Road 60, could cost $600,000.
Phil Matson, director of the county's metropolitan planning organization, said the project is currently undergoing an environmental impact statement review process due to their federal loan request. He requested the county hire a consultant to interpret the study's findings as they are very technical in nature.
Commissioner Solari requested that the time to review the study findings be made as long as possible, even asking the normal 90 days be extended 180 days with the rail company's permission.
The county commission also approved sending a request to the Florida Department of Transportation for information regarding leases Florida East Coast Industries has with the state and their use of state right-of-way land.
Commissioners also agreed to request more information from All Aboard Florida and to urge the Federal Rail Administration and other government lenders to limit any loans to All Aboard Florida to market rates and not extend any special deals to the company.
The Vero Beach City Council also directed staff to bring back a resolution opposing public funds being used for the private company's project. The council is expected to discuss the matter again at the April 15 meeting.
Besides financial concerns, government officials and members of the public have said they see other problems with the rail service.
There are no plans to have the passenger rail system stop anywhere in Indian River County; however traffic will definitely be impacted by the trains traveling through because roads and bridges will have to be closed temporarily while the trains are passing through.
There is likely to be noise and vibrations from the fast-moving trains that will also negatively impact people near the train tracks, even lowering property values, members of the public said.
For more information about county government meetings, visit www.ircgov.com.
For more information about Vero Beach government meetings, visit www.covb.org.
For more information about Sebastian government meetings, visit www.cityofsebastian.org.