Sun Sentinel: All Aboard Florida tries to fight big misconceptions

Posted on July 16, 2014

Fears, distortions abound about ‘Big Choo Choo’

Michael Mayo, Sun Sentinel Columnist

The folks from All Aboard Florida wanted to set me on the right track. They’re about to unveil drawings of their downtown West Palm Beach station – sound the trumpets! – and they were concerned with all the concerns I’ve been raising recently about the proposed Miami-to-Orlando passenger rail service.

So I met with AAF chief marketing officer Julie Edwards and spokeswoman Ali Soule this week. I would have taken the meeting in Boca Raton or Delray Beach, but I didn’t know if they’d stop there (Ha-ha, express train humor.) So we met in Fort Lauderdale, the other planned South Florida stop.

I explained to them that I had nothing against trains (I grew up riding subways in New York) and want to see sensible mass transit that works in South Florida. But I also explained that I felt a duty to explore the issues being raised by opposition groups, which seem to be sprouting daily.

Another one, calling itself Citizens Against The Train, just launched a television ad that’s hitting Palm Beach County airwaves. The ad menacingly portrays All Aboard Florida’s 32 daily trains as “Big Choo Choo,” with noise ruining family dinners and traffic gridlock at crossings.

Edwards said opposition groups are fueling “misconceptions and distortions.” She said All Aboard Florida wants to be a good neighbor, and has been working extensively with local governments along the route to ensure proper safety and noise reduction. The privately-funded rail service, which is supposed to launch in late 2016 along the eastern FEC tracks currently used by freight trains, will initially run from Miami-to-West Palm Beach before adding its Orlando leg.

She said research suggests there will be sufficient demand for the train, especially among international tourists from car-averse cultures (Europe, South America). And she said the train would be an important first domino that would allow other mass transit pieces to fall into place, like new localized Tri-Rail service on the same FEC tracks.

Edwards and Soule also wanted to dispel other myths. They insist the rail service is not “a Trojan horse” to serve the interests of increased freight capacity. One theory making the rounds is that the passenger service is simply a ruse to get a federal loan to build double-tracking to Orlando and Jacksonville, which the freight line wouldn’t otherwise qualify for.

They also insist the train has no connection to a possible downtown Miami casino, with some opponents fearing it would serve as a reverse conveyor belt to siphon tourists from the central Florida theme parks. (And besides, it would be far easier for gambling-minded tourists in central Florida to hop down I-4 to the Seminole Hard Rock casino outside Tampa).

And they say that the train would be financially self-sufficient, with AAF’s parent company pouring $1.5 billion into the project, including the full cost of safety upgrades at crossing along the route. Edwards said the federal financing isn’t a handout, and would be repaid with interest. She also said the company would pay rent at the end stop at Orlando International Airport, a multi-purpose station being built with state and federal support.

And what if all their rosy projections fall flat, and the train line is a bust? They said that will leave investors, not the public, left holding the bag. We shall see.

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