Rich Campbell: Is All Aboard Florida a “done deal”. Maybe not. Here’s why
Posted on March 16, 2015
I’m asked repeatedly by readers if All Aboard Florida is a “done deal,” if there is anything that can derail the project.
My typical response is something between skeptical and cynical.
The Federal Railroad Administration, the agency overseeing the Miami-to-Orlando passenger rail project, operates primarily in an advisory capacity. It has limited authority beyond ensuring All Aboard Florida adequately addresses potential impacts to communities along the 235-mile rail line.
Coupled with a state government that cares so much about Treasure Coast residents — sarcasm intended! — that it missed the deadline to comment on the project’s draft environmental impact statement by three months, our region has been forced to fend for itself in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
If All Aboard Florida is successful in selling $1.75 billion in private activity bonds — this story line will play out over the next few months — the project would appear to be a fait accompli.
So, can All Aboard Florida be stopped?
“Absolutely,” says the man who may play a key role in stopping it.
Steve Ryan — a partner with the McDermott, Will & Emery law firm in Washington, D.C. — has been retained by the local opposition group Citizens Against Rail Expansion to fight the rail project. He also is consulting with Martin County and the town of Jupiter Island. The Martin County Commission recently voted 4-1 to spend up to $80,000 to tap Ryan’s expertise.
Last month, the Indian River and Martin County commissions voted to spend up to $4.1 million to pursue legal action against the rail project.
“All Aboard Florida is really good at making the public think it’s a done deal,” Ryan said. “ … But the Camelot picture painted by the other side looks great until it collapses.”
Such was the case in 2007 in Rochester, Minnesota, where Ryan helped the Rochester Coalition — a group comprised of the Mayo Clinic, local Minnesota governments and the chamber of commerce — successfully fight a plan to run 34 coal trains a day near the Mayo Clinic.
The result? The Federal Railroad Administration denied an application from the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad for a $2.3 billion Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing loan.
Ryan outlined several legal arguments All Aboard Florida opponents may pursue in court:
- The Florida Development Finance Corp. — the quasi-governmental agency that agreed to issue $1.75 billion of tax-exempt bonds for All Aboard Florida — was improperly constituted by the state. As a result, the decision is a “nullity,” according to Ryan, and subsequent actions based on that decision also are null and void.
- All Aboard Florida lacks government authorization under Title 23 of the federal code to issue private activity bonds.
“Until they show me what the authority is, I am a doubting Thomas,” Ryan said. “I ought to be able to read the law and figure out where All Aboard Florida gets the authority to receive private activity bonds.”
- The draft environmental impact statement in inadequate. Ryan calls the draft report, released by the Federal Railroad Administration in September, a “piece of garbage.” He contends the federal agency should come back with a new draft report and another round of input from the public.
I’ve read the draft report. I agree with the “garbage” assessment. Just the fact the document was prepared by consultants hired and paid by All Aboard Florida is enough to question its objectivity.
- Railroad bridges are the weakest part of the All Aboard Florida project.
Ryan: “The structures are decrepit and 80 years old and should be in an industrial archaeology museum. Nothing can get under the bridges when they are closed. And the proposal is to close them for 45 minutes every hour. This will harm all the people who depend on the maritime economy.”
This wouldn’t be the first time an attorney has sold — or oversold — his case. Still, Ryan’s arguments appear to have merit.
The potential doubling of freight traffic through our region — from 14 to 28 freight trains a day — and the addition of 32 daily passenger trains is nothing short of a nightmare scenario for Treasure Coast residents.
Backed into a corner, our region has no choice but to challenge All Aboard Florida in court.
Is All Aboard Florida a done deal?