Sunshine State News: All Aboard Florida: The Horror Behind Curtain No. 2

Posted on August 18, 2014

All Aboard Florida (AAF) is like a rigged “Let’s Make a Deal” TV experience.

They tell you the Big Prize is the shiny new passenger train service. But no matter which curtain you choose, you’re going to get what’s behind curtain No. 2 — the freight-train nightmare from hell.

The flashy passenger train is the bait.

I was sorry last week to see the Florida Chamber of Commerce take the bait, even talk about the “high level of support from the local communities along the route that will each gain revenues, retail shopping enhancements, jobs and a reduction in traffic congestion.”

Florida Chamber President Mark Wilson praised the project in an open letter to Gov. Rick Scott: “All Aboard Florida makes sense and we believe this privately-funded project is a good fit for securing Florida’s future.”

Wait a minute. Not so privately funded as I and several other elected officials believed earlier in the year.

I owe Sunshine State News readers an apology. In a March 20 column, “Martin County Very Much NOT All Aboard on Miami-Orlando Rail Line,” my advice was to reserve criticism of the proposed Miami-Orlando rail project until the company presented its plans for fixing the chaos along the route. Those of us who gave AAF and Florida East Coast Industries the benefit of the doubt are now sorry we did.

It took me longer than it should have, but I am convinced AAF has little to no interest in solving the problems it’s given to the Treasure Coast.

Except for beefing up safety at rail crossings and paying to create “quiet zones” — though even how much “quiet” these zones actually will provide is uncertain —  it doesn’t look as if AAF or FECI is going to fix the things causing the greatest concern.

It’s not the zippy passenger trains at seven-cars-and-two-engines-long that will hold up traffic on roads and water. It’s the coming of the earth-shaking monster freight trains, one right after the other, rolling slow and heavy from southern ports — that’s what stirs fear in the hearts of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Treasure Coast residents.

Which is my point: The second set of tracks is being laid for expanded freight from super-tankers coming to Miami with the expansion of the Panama Canal. The passenger element is just window dressing.

FEC is the exclusive rail provider for the Port of Miami and Port Everglades. In Miami, FEC has now completed building rail in and out. The trains can’t go south, so you know where they’re headed. The Fort Lauderdale port is next on the list, set to start dredging for the jumbo container ships when environmental studies are completed next year.

If something doesn’t change, if this venture isn’t slowed or, better, stopped — starting in 2016 the Treasure Coast could see as many as 50 trains a day rumbling through major intersections, creating moving barriers to hospitals, schools, offices, major retail businesses and people’s homes.

Just as bad, the railroad bridges would remain down far longer than they would up. All Aboard Florida would devastate the critical marine industry, for example, in Stuart — a major component of the area’s quality of life — where two rivers flow into the Atlantic.

But, at long last, federal-level elected officials have taken an interest in the financial viability of All Aboard Florida. Florida congressmen like Democrat Patrick Murphy and Republican Bill Posey have come to realize what a risky venture AAF is, that if the passenger service fails, the far more lucrative freight business won’t — that is will not — be making good on the loan.

In a letter Thursday to U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, Posey demanded the Government Accountability Office (GAO) launch a viability study of All Aboard Florida’s proposed line. “… I have consistently opposed taxpayer subsidies for rail initiatives,” Posey wrote. “I am, therefore, concerned about the potential exposure to taxpayers of all such projects including, but not limited to, the AAF application.”

Murphy was right behind Posey on Thursday, asking the GAO’s Dodaro for the same study.

“All Aboard Florida’s plan to run 32 additional trains daily through the Palm Beaches and the Treasure Coast of Florida poses significant threats to our community’s public safety, economy, and our way of life,” Murphy insisted. “Although initially sold as a ‘private’ project, AAF is actually seeking more than a billion dollars in taxpayer-backed loans from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). … (The) financial viability must be thoroughly reviewed.”

As Broward Bulldog pointed out in an April 29 report, “All Aboard Florida: Boon or Boondoggle?” FECI’s corporate tree “now includes 10 to 12 entities and nearly all are LLCs, from which company officials can simply walk away” without liability should serious problems develop.”

At the top of AAF’s corporate hierarchy, the Bulldog put Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund that purchased Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) for $3.5 billion in 2007. Florida East Coast Railway, meanwhile, is an affiliate of FECI and operates freight trains throughout Florida. Florida Trend magazine claims it is an independent company owned separately by Fortress.

AAF officials have said the company expects initial annual revenue of $143 million. The question is, given a 5.75 percent interest on a $1.5 billion loan, and other costs like salaries, will there be enough left to make it a viable operation?

Answers to the money questions, if they continue to be unsatisfactory, present local residents with their best chance of knocking off those extra 32 train trips a day.

Sadly, the problem remains — the nightmare behind curtain No. 2, Big Choo Choo as it’s called, an onslaught of freight trains, 100 or more fully-loaded cars at a time.

It’s hard to imagine anything changing that. FECI has put too much money into port egress already.

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