The TC Palm: Rich Campbell: I may have given up fight against All Aboard Florida, but I haven’t given up hope

Posted on September 14, 2015

Rich Campbell

Many readers didn’t like my Aug. 30 column, “Accept it, folks; the train is coming.”

I was called a quitter and a traitor, and basically challenged to re-evaluate my manhood.

I fully understand the frustration of All Aboard Florida opponents. And I appreciate the input, whether positive or negative, though I could do without the name calling.

Residents and elected officials in Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie counties have been waging a valiant effort for more than a year to defeat the Miami-to-Orlando passenger rail project, which is scheduled to begin zipping through our region in late 2017.

No train stops are planned for the Treasure Coast.

I championed opposition to the project. I continue to oppose it. But there have been three important events — markers, if you will — that slowly cemented in my mind the reality that continued opposition would prove to be futile:

  1. The June 10 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper, who rejected a request from Indian River and Martin counties to impose a temporary injunction to block All Aboard Florida’s issuance of $1.75 billion of tax-exempt bonds.
  1. The final environmental impact statement, released Aug. 4, which conveniently glossed over many of the concerns raised by area residents.
  1. The Aug. 5 decision by the Florida Development Finance Corp. to allow the rail company to issue the bonds.

Here’s a fourth marker, which, chronologically, occurred well in advance of the other three, but runs like a thread through the entire, broken process.

Ever wonder why the U.S. Department of Transportation seems so willing to facilitate the All Aboard Florida project? Or why the Federal Railroad Administration would issue two environmental impact statements — i.e. the draft and final reports — that blatantly ignored concerns raised by people in our region?

The answer is, it’s all part of the plan.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation drafted the National Rail Plan. One of the goals is “to connect communities with high-speed and intercity passenger rail where population densities and competitive trip times create markets for success.”

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood fleshed out specifics for passenger rail in the “Vision for High-Speed Rail in America.” It calls for the development of “emerging and regional high-speed corridors (operating up to 90-110 mph and 110-150 mph, respectively, on shared and dedicated tracks) in corridors of 100-500 miles.”

Ten potential high-speed corridors received special designation. The Miami-Orlando-Tampa route is one of them.

To date, the federal government has invested more than $10 billion nationwide through its High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. But federal dollars are in short supply. So transportation officials bent on advancing the passenger-rail plan look favorably on private projects such as All Aboard Florida.

This much is clear: The federal government is predisposed to facilitate completion of the Miami-to-Orlando project. Examples?

  1. When All Aboard Florida struggled to meet a July 1 deadline to sell $1.75 billion of tax-exempt bonds, the U.S. Department of Transportation graciously extended the deadline to Jan. 1.

More time?

No problem.

  1. Both the draft and final environmental impact statements are little more than a whitewashing of the potential impacts from the project. The final report concludes that any harms from All Aboard Florida — from waterway navigation to public safety to historic preservation — could be mitigated.

Will the All Aboard Florida project come to fruition? Yes, if the rail company is able to sell its bonds.

Will the project succeed? No.

All Aboard Florida’s projected ridership — 5.35 million passengers in 2020 — is pure fiction. That works out to 14,657 passengers per day on 32 daily trains — or 458 passengers per train.

It ain’t gonna happen.

As Randal O’Toole, writing for the Cato Institute, noted in a 2010 article, “U.S. passenger rail planners typically overestimate ridership by an average of about 100 percent.”

Bottom line? I’m pessimistic in the short term but optimistic in the long term.

Unfortunately, our region will be forced to endure the inconveniences wrought by this project, possibly for several years, until the marketplace demonstrates its unwillingness to support All Aboard Florida.

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