The TC Palm: Three months late, Florida agencies, departments finally submit their comments on All Aboard Florida

Posted on March 6, 2015

By Lisa Broadt


The railroad administration, after first rejecting a deadline extension, now will accept the nearly 100 pages of late comments from seven state and regional agencies, Assistant Administrator Kevin Thompson said Thursday. They will be added to some 12,000 other comments — from governments, opposition groups and individuals — which will be considered in preparation of All Aboard Florida’s final environmental impact statement, a federally required report which examines the project’s potential effect on issues such as traffic, safety, wildlife and noise.


The $2.25 billion, Miami-to-Orlando project would send 32 passenger trains through the Treasure Coast daily beginning in early 2017.


Comments from the state departments of transportation, state and environmental protection; the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; the Division of Historical Resources; the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council; and the St. Johns River and South Florida water management districts revealed no seemingly insurmountable problems.


All Aboard Florida would travel on private tracks, but still could significantly impact surrounding public property, and those effects must be accounted for in the final environmental impact statement, according to Florida Department of Transportation comments submitted through the state clearinghouse.


All Aboard Florida fails to address the cost of designing and constructing crossing upgrades in the draft statement, according to FDOT.


Its sister company, Florida East Coast Railways, has a shaky track record when it comes to crossing maintenance, FDOT said.


“(Our) request is based on observations made on prior crossing upgrades in which surfaces were not compatible and resulted in additional costs to the public,” the department said in its comments. All Aboard should re-examine its potential impact on traffic — particularly along the north-south corridor — and identify intersections where vehicle traffic could back up onto the tracks, FDOT said.


The Florida Department of Environmental Protection was critical that the draft environmental assessment statement never even mentioned Savannas Preserve State Park in St. Lucie County.


The FEC rail corridor passes along nine miles of the park, described by the state as “globally imperiled ecosystem with rare flora and fauna.” Disturbances in the park could affect gopher tortoises, sand pine scrub, fragrant prickly apple cactus, Savannas mint, Florida scrub-jays and other threatened and endangered species, and All Aboard Florida must acknowledge these issues and explain how it will minimize its impact, according to the department.


The logistics of upgrading the track through Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County are unclear: Closing the one-way-in and one-way-out Southeast Jonathan Dickinson Way — likely necessary during crossing upgrades — could strand emergency vehicles, campers and staff in the western part of the park during closures.


Temporary or permanent closure of the road, as stated in the draft statement, is unacceptable, according to the department.


The draft impact statement incorrectly defined historic areas when evaluating the impact the high-speed rail project would have on the Treasure Coast, according to state Historic Preservation Officer Robert Bendus.


Nine potentially affected bridges from West Palm Beach to Cocoa were omitted from the report, as was information on how train horns and vibrations could affect properties on National Register of Historic Places, according to Bendus. In the final statement, All Aboard Florida must use the correct federal definition for architectural and historical resources.


The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also addressed bridges.


Mitigation measures to avoid long boating delays at the St. Lucie, Loxahatchee and New river bridges, such as establishing and providing schedules for closures, must be established, according to Fish and Wildlife.


The Florida Clearinghouse — responsible for crafting the state’s official response — in January said it was still “reviewing” All Aboard Florida’s environmental impact statement, according to Dee Ann Miller, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the Clearinghouse. It had given state agencies an Oct. 30 deadline for submitting their comments.


The Clearinghouse received comments from both state and regional agencies, including the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, which also sent its comments to the Federal Railroad Administration directly, according to Kim DeLaney, the council’s strategic development coordinator.


The Federal Railroad Administration will take all comments into account when drafting the final environmental impact statement and suggesting additional mitigation measures to All Aboard Florida, Thompson said.


Officials have set no deadline for releasing the final environmental impact statement.


All Aboard Florida’s proposed Miami-to-Orlando high-speed passenger rail project would begin service from Miami to West Palm Beach by the end of 2016 and through the Treasure Coast to Orlando International Airport in early 2017.


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