The Palm Beach Post: More cities balk at signing All Aboard Florida crossing contracts
Posted on September 24, 2014
By Kimberly Miller and Jennifer Sorentrue
Treasure Coast communities are balking at railroad crossing agreements proposed by All Aboard Florida, questioning the cost to taxpayers, the lawfulness of the contracts and challenging train officials with their own terms.
Brevard, Indian River and St. Lucie elected officials have either rejected the plans that outline their responsibility to maintain the crossings or have been advised by county staff to vote down the proposals. Palm Beach County cities are mulling the most recent agreement sent in June, but West Palm Beach has responded with its own demands, which include putting the promise of quiet zones in writing.
All Aboard Florida says it doesn’t need the agreements to start construction on its new tracks from Miami to Orlando. Considering its multi-million investment in rail upgrades and safety improvements, however, the private company wants to be named third-party beneficiary in the arrangements already in place with Florida East Coast Railway.
“It is only natural that we are party to the existing agreements,” All Aboard Florida said in a statement. “It is important to re-emphasize that we are a completely separate company than the Florida East Coast Railway.”
Florida East Coast Railway is an affiliate of All Aboard Florida’s parent company, Florida East Coast Industries.
All Aboard Florida has been pressuring municipalities from Boca Raton to Cocoa to sign the plans since December, setting two separate deadlines for municipal governments to comply. The first proposal, dated Dec. 26, set a 60-day deadline.
A June 18 proposal set a 120-day deadline. It was an unwelcome demand in Indian River County, which flatly denied the offer last month.
“Not just no, but hell no,” said Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari in a motion to reject All Aboard Florida’s crossing proposal.
All Aboard Florida’s route on the FEC tracks includes 263 crossings between Miami-Dade County through St. Lucie County, including 114 in Palm Beach County, according to a March rail crossing assessment performed by engineer Frank Frey with the Federal Railroad Administration.
An estimated 90 crossings exist between the southern border of Indian River County through Cocoa.
Decades-old agreements between municipal governments and the Florida East Coast Railway include leasing and maintenance contracts that municipalities pay to allow for vehicular and pedestrian traffic across the tracks.
The costs can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the number of crossings and amount of maintenance needed in a given year.
With All Aboard Florida’s plan to add an additional track to the FEC corridor and safety upgrades that will include additional gates, officials say they don’t want to sign agreements that don’t have an estimate of the increased maintenance costs.
Nick Uhren, executive director of Palm Beach County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, which determines how federal and state transportation money is spent to improve transit, said the MPO is still determining how each crossing will be upgraded. Much of those upgrades will include the installation of gates that block traffic on both sides of the tracks at crossings.
Palm Beach County has pledged $6.6 million to cover the cost of quiet zone improvements, but Uhren said local governments will be responsible for the continued maintenance costs associated with the upgrades.
“The funding is sufficient to construct the capital costs associated with additional safety improvements to make this corridor a quiet zone,” Uhren told Delray Beach officials at a Sept. 9 meeting.
Municipalities would be responsible for paying for the electricity used to operate gate arms and the wear and tear on arm motors and other equipment. The maintenance costs are expected to be an added $4,200 per year per crossing.
All Aboard Florida asked the St. Lucie County Commission to postpone a vote Tuesday on the crossing agreements, which it did. The recommendation on the table was to reject it.
But a delay may make little difference in the minds of some commissioners.
“I will not support going forward with spending taxpayer monies to support a private entity,” said St. Lucie Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky. “They are going after a $1.6 billion loan from the federal government. Well, that should be put into their cost of doing business.”
Gregory Stuart, executive director of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, said several cities in Broward County have signed the crossing agreements, but the county government has not.
“The original agreements are almost 100 years old, and they’re all written a little bit differently,” Stuart said. “It’s unfamiliar territories for the cities. When they become familiar with it, they’ll understand that they might want to negotiate.”
If the agreements aren’t signed, Stuart said federal law supersedes local decisions and the municipalities will still be billed for maintenance and repairs under the existing plans.
“Railroad law predates most of our communities in Florida,” he said.