Guest column: We will continue fight against Brightline passenger rail

Posted on January 12, 2017

In 2014, Martin County began its fight to protect its residents from the negative effects of rail expansion, including All Aboard Florida’s (aka Brightline) proposed passenger rail project. We have remained committed to preventing or reducing the many threats to the health, safety and well-being of our citizens should high-speed trains and expanded freight rail come through the Treasure Coast.

The county is using legal, legislative and administrative tools to address this politically and financially powerful threat. And while preventing rail expansion is our primary goal, we have, from the beginning, made every attempt to provide input to appropriate reviewing agencies and even to All Aboard Florida itself to mitigate the harmful effects of this project.

Unlike All Aboard Florida, which has been disingenuous and secretive with its plans for obtaining taxpayer-subsidized money to fund its private, for-profit business, the county has been transparent. We recently had the opportunity to meet with the Editorial Board of Treasure Coast Newspapers as part of our proactive effort to educate the public about our activities. We’ve been keeping citizens informed and engaged, and they are largely supportive. We believe this significant citizen support has put pressure on All Aboard Florida to share more information with the public.

Taxpayer dollars that have been invested in litigation, professional review, expert studies and reports is money well spent. Our research brought to light an alternative existing western train route which was never submitted to rail officials for consideration. This western route would have reduced the negative effects associated with the proposed route through coastal Martin County and historic downtown Stuart. Without our due diligence, this information might have never been discovered — and certainly was not voluntarily revealed by All Aboard Florida.

The county’s pursuit of a federal lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the $1.75 billion taxpayer-subsidized bond allocation issued to All Aboard Florida by the U.S. Department of Transportation led a federal judge to find that All Aboard Florida had no likely ability to fund and construct the West Palm Beach to Orlando phase without taxpayer subsidies.

Because of our litigation, All Aboard Florida and the DOT abandoned that allocation and instead went to Plan B — a recently conceived “new” $600 million taxpayer-subsidized bond allocation that will purportedly finance only the Miami-to-West Palm Beach phase of the project. The court found that All Aboard Florida has no current clear path to funding the construction of phase two of its project — the portion that would send trains, including increased freight, barreling through our communities.

Our staff also worked closely with the U.S. Coast Guard on its rulemaking process for the 80-year-old St. Lucie River railroad bridge to address the detrimental effect the rail project will have on marine navigation. All Aboard Florida’s trains would cause the bridge to be closed for more than nine hours a day, triple the current closures. We ask that the Coast Guard establish operating rules for the bridge to ensure reasonable navigation needs are met.

Martin County also has been fighting to prevent the unfair mandate of funding safety equipment upgrades and perpetual maintenance costs for railroad crossing rehabilitation required for All Aboard Florida to run its trains through our communities. Our recent studies indicate Martin County’s costs would rise dramatically, potentially reaching $13.5 million in 2030 and exceeding $31 million by 2040. This cost far exceeds our total financial investment in fighting the threat of All Aboard Florida.

The year ahead will likely bring new challenges, and we continue to do all we can to protect our citizens and the quality of life we hold dear.

Taryn Kryzda is the county administrator for Martin County.

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