The Palm Beach Post: All Aboard Florida opponents make stand in Tallahassee

Posted on April 21, 2015

Tallahassee — 

State representatives and local lawmakers from the Treasure Coast on Monday urged officials to block All Aboard Florida from receiving $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds to finance the building of passenger rail between Miami and Orlando, arguing the project is economically unfeasible, unsafe and threatens a thriving marine boating industry.

The public hearing conducted by the reconstituted Florida Development Finance Corp. Board took place hundreds of miles from where 32 daily trains would pass through 41 cities. But about two dozen opponents — many of them senior citizens — made the seven-hour trek to the state’s capital by chartered bus or car to voice their strident opposition. Members of the board were not present save its executive director, Bill Spivey, who ran the hearing.

“We were willing to go to any length to be here,” said Brent Hanlon, the treasurer for Citizens Against Railway Expansion in Florida.

The approval of the private activity bonds is necessary for the project to move forward and for All Aboard Florida to meet the U.S. Department of Transportation’s specifications. The Coral Gables-based company needs to pay off $405 million in high-risk bonds it issued last year for the train that would link Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando.

The retirees who spoke expressed concerns about safety for children crossing the tracks on foot and in buses, the increased noise level and that the project appeared to be a ruse to upgrade the tracks to increase freight on the Florida East Coast Railway.

“It’s more about real estate and less about the railway,” said opponent Jo Pulvermacher, a retiree from Jupiter. “There’s something wrong with that picture.”

Many of their positions were echoed by Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Hobe Sound, Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, and Rep. Larry Lee Jr., D-Fort Pierce. Lee had most of his comments read into the record after being delayed at the airport by a thunderstorm that also knocked out power to the hotel where the hearing took place.

Magar, whose district includes some of Palm Beach County, rattled off a list of concerns, saying there have yet to be any ridership projections. “All Aboard has not been transparent.” She said quadrupling the train traffic will slow down first-responders, especially ambulances.

The opposition was countered by a half-hour presentation by All Aboard Florida President Michael Reininger and a cavalcade business leaders, including construction company owner Dwight Stephenson, the former Miami Dolphins All-Pro center. They repeatedly invoked Henry Flagler, the visionary whose railroad in the 1880s opened up Palm Beach County and South Florida for not only tourists but for new inhabitants.

After the hearing, Lee said the absence of the board members and the location of the meeting in Tallahassee make it appear that the bond approval is a fait accompli.

“I was very disappointed. It’s likely they are not wanting to have the people affected the most in a negative way to have any voice,” Lee said after the meeting. “They put it way up here to make it very inconvenient.”

Attorney Stephen Ryan, representing the Martin County Commission, said All Aboard Florida doesn’t qualify for the tax-free bonds because its trains won’t travel fast enough to meet the definition of high-speed rail.

“This project is premised on a totally unlawful Department of Transportation theory by saying you can issue $1.7 billion worth of bonds to a railroad by calling it a highway,” he said. “We will have our day in court on this issue.”

Matthew Blair, a lobbyist representing Marine Industries of the Palm Beaches, and Bill Biggs,a director of the Marine Industries Association of the Treasure Coast, said All Aboard would strand commercial and recreational boaters waiting for bridges to open. Biggs said the yacht repair industry would be cut off from customers coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. “They may as well be land-locked,” he said.

All Aboard Florida isolating businesses or neighborhoods by increasing the train traffic was a repeated theme throughout the hearing from opponents.

Paul Westcott, an attorney from Indian River County, said small business will wither as customers decide not to chance getting stopped by a train. “Are you going to establish an area of blight?”

And what if All Aboard fails? Westcott said then the taxpayers will pick up the tab.

“At some point in time we are going to hear ‘too big to fail,’ and our friends in the legislature are going to be asked to underwrite this project,” he said.

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