Editorial: Is counties’ legal challenge against All Aboard Florida paying dividends? Time will tell
Posted on September 1, 2016
Indian River and Martin counties have earmarked $5.1 million, combined, to fight the All Aboard Florida/Brightline passenger rail project.
Through July, about $3.6 million of this appropriation had been spent.
The counties scored a significant win Aug. 16 when U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper ruled they have "standing" to proceed with their lawsuit against the project.
Specifically, the decision emboldens the counties' efforts to block the issuance of $1.75 billion of tax-exempt bonds to All Aboard Florida, funds the rail company needs to complete Phase 2 (West Palm Beach to Orlando).
In addition to the legal fight, the counties also have been pursuing several objectives at administrative levels, including safety upgrades at rail crossings and protection of wetlands.
"The county has spent a considerable amount of time and resources, not just on the litigation, but also in working with federal and state agencies to make sure that specific concerns are identified and addressed relating to the safety of our citizens, as well as protecting our cultural resources, environment, endangered species, marine community and general quality of life," Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold said.
Is the investment of taxpayers' money paying dividends?
Will the counties' legal and administrative challenges derive benefits that are equal to, or exceed, the outlay of your tax dollars?
The unanimous rejoinder to both questions from Indian River and Martin officials is "yes."
Martin County Commissioner John Haddox (District 5), who lost his re-election bid Tuesday, told the Editorial Board of Treasure Coast Newspapers he expects the county to recoup its "investment" of legal and administrative fees.
Ditto for Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari (District 5), who captured the Republican primary in his re-election bid.
"I believe that the increased safety benefits Indian River County will receive because of our efforts fighting the train, in the unlikely event it is actually built, will be greater than what we will have paid in legal fees," Solari said.
Solari pointed to Dec. 16 correspondence from the Federal Railroad Administration to All Aboard Florida. In this document, the federal agency notified the rail company that some of its rail-crossing design plans "do not conform" to federal standards. The federal agency also disagreed with the rail company's assertion that "All Aboard Florida's alternatives comply with the (Federal Railroad Administration's) sealed corridor guidelines."
As a result, the federal agency identified numerous changes All Aboard Florida must make to its plans, including the installation of exit gates, and three- and four-quadrant gates, at select rail-highway crossings.
"I believe the Federal Railroad Administration's demands on All Aboard Florida have been a direct result of the litigation against the U.S. Department of Transportation," Reingold said. "As it currently stands, the proposed project will be considerably safer if it becomes a reality."
Reingold cited other examples, including recognition of the Vero Man archaeological site and surrounding wetlands, as evidence the counties' legal challenge is bearing fruit.
Is there a correlation between the counties' legal investment and the Federal Railroad Administration's enhanced requirements on All Aboard Florida?
Then again, the federal agency might have taken these actions independent of the counties' legal challenge.
It's difficult to establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship.
Of course, if the counties ultimately prevail in blocking All Aboard Florida's access to $1.75 billion of tax-exempt bonds — and the project fails for lack of funding — this discussion becomes a moot point. In this scenario, the counties would be fully vindicated for their decision to fight the project in court.
From the inception of the counties' legal fight against All Aboard Florida, the Editorial Board of Treasure Coast Newspapers has advocated for transparency and accountability with respect to the use of taxpayers' money.
We reaffirm that commitment.
Regardless of the outcome of the counties' fight against All Aboard Florida, it's important for taxpayers to know how their money is being spent.