The TC Palm: CARE FL could spend $3 million to fight All Aboard Florida

Posted on March 13, 2015

Lisa Broadt

A multimillion-dollar legal battle is shaping up over All Aboard Florida.


A lawsuit against the proposed high-speed passenger railroad by the opposition group Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida “absolutely” would be winnable, according to Washington, D.C., attorney Stephen Ryan, who represents the group known as CARE FL.


“I’ve seldom seen a more callous attitude toward the safety of people,” he said. “We’re up against a formidable foe with deep pockets, but we’re ready to move forward.”


A suit by CARE would focus on a “shoddy” environmental impact report from the Federal Railroad Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s improper allocation of millions of dollars for the private company, according to Ryan.


A federal lawsuit would cost $2 million to $3 million, according to Bill Ward, CARE steering committee chairman. The organization, comprised mostly of homeowners associations in Martin and Palm Beach counties, has raised about $600,000, he said.


“It’s not an unfettered right of way,” said Ward about the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, which All Aboard Florida would share. “They don’t have the right to do whatever they want.”


All Aboard Florida’s $3 billion Miami-to-Orlando passenger project would send 32 passenger trains through the Treasure Coast daily beginning in early 2017.


The Federal Railroad Administration in September released the 522-page draft environmental impact report, which examines All Aboard Florida’s impact on issues such as changes in traffic, safety, wildlife and noise. It’s now preparing the final report, based in part on more than 12,000 comments from governments, opposition groups and individuals.


The FRA has no release date for the final report, spokesman Michael Cole said.


Ryan said he and CARE are ready to proceed with the lawsuit if the final environmental impact statement doesn’t reflect fundamental changes to the project.


All Aboard Florida declined to comment on a lawsuit that has not been filed, said Lynn Martenstein, vice president of corporate communications.


“We are not aware of any legal action that has been taken against All Aboard Florida, and we are not speculating about possible actions,” Martenstein said Thursday.


All Aboard Florida’s potential use of $1.75 billion of tax-exempt bonds, inappropriately issued by the state, also could fuel the suit, Ryan said.


Florida Development Financing Corp. — the quasi-governmental agency that authorized the bonds — is temporarily disabled and appears to have been invalid when it approved the bonds in August.


“We know pretty clearly their vote should not have been taken,” Ryan said. “There was no quorum.”


That initial decision allowed the U.S. Department of Transportation in December to authorize issuance of the bonds, another step that now is invalid, according to Ryan.


The Department of Transportation, according to Ryan, made its own mistake when issuing the bonds: It relied on federal law intended for highways, not railroads.


“It’s very troubling,” Ryan said. “DOT is issuing a blank check,” and possibly a precedent for future rail projects.


The state refused to explain how it plans to proceed with the bond process. All Aboard Florida said it “looks forward to quick consideration of our application” by the state.


CARE’s litigation also could touch on problems in the draft environmental impact statement. The report overlooks effects on historic resources and potential marine problems, including wear and tear on the almost-100-year-old St. Lucie River drawbridge from nearly tripled train traffic; backed up boat traffic from more frequent bridge closures; and automobile traffic delays that could be caused by waiting trains blocking intersections.


CARE may collaborate with other governments and organizations to fight All Aboard Florida, but will continue to work with Ryan independently on its lawsuit, Ryan said.


Martin and Indian River counties together have pledged $4 million to take action against All Aboard Florida. Martin County and the town of Jupiter Island have retained Ryan; Martin has earmarked $80,000 for his expertise, which includes litigation and lobbying.


In 2007, Ryan helped the Rochester Coalition — a group made up of the Mayo Clinic and local governments — successfully fight a plan to run 34 coal trains a day through the middle of Rochester, Minnesota, where the world renowned hospital is based.

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