Too many questions remain on train’s safety, viability

Posted on July 7, 2015

By Bill Posey

When All Aboard Florida executives unveiled their project, they presented it as a high-speed train that would be built on their own property at their own expense. It was explained to me that it would not require any government approvals, endanger any of my constituents or put the taxpayers on the hook for another federally funded failure.

Turns out these selling points were too good to be true.

It wasn’t long before AAF’s proponents asked me to sign a letter to the secretary of transportation endorsing the project as they pursued a $1.6 billion loan from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program. Of the 35 loans that were ever made through this program, only five have exceeded $100 million. AAF’s loan would be the largest to date.

Throughout my years of public service — from city council to Legislature to Congress — I have yet to see a taxpayer-financed passenger train that didn’t run large deficits. As such, I did not endorse AAF’s loan request and instead wrote to the Government Accountability Office, as did my colleague U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, asking the GAO to study the loan to ensure that taxpayer funds were not at risk.

Because this loan requires a lengthy environmental impact study, AAF decided to put the loan on hold and pursue financing through the use of tax-exempt facility bonds, which must be authorized by the U.S. Department of Transportation. These are special bonds designed to help raise funds for infrastructure needs such as airports, waste-management facilities and other transportation projects.

One area where the law restricts these bonds is in financing passenger rail, which it limits to projects that “use vehicles that are reasonably expected to be capable of attaining a maximum speed in excess of 150 miles per hour between scheduled stops.” AAF does not fit this definition; yet the DOT decided to ignore the law and authorize bonds anyway.

DOT officials say the project previously received taxpayer funds through other sources and that can be used to justify the department’s bond authority. But the DOT has refused to answer basic questions on where, when and how those funds were spent.

Also, the DOT is wrong to expedite taxpayer financing of this project without a completed environmental impact study — we don’t even know if it is safe or feasible. These trains will move through our small beach towns at speeds up to 110 mph with virtually no buffer separating them from our communities.

AAF envisions running 32 trains per day on the same track with 20 freight trains. Given how close this track is to adjacent roads and neighborhoods, there are serious safety considerations.

Furthermore, a recent independent economic analysis conducted by John Friedman concludes that even under all optimistic assumptions, AAF will generate annual losses of more than $100 million and will be unable to service its debt burden. Friedman is a distinguished Brown University professor, has a doctorate in economics, and has served as an Obama administration economic adviser.

I am disappointed by the DOT’s refusal to answer basic questions about its authority to finance this project, and astonished by the department’s disregard for the concerns of my constituents, many of whom oppose this train because of the safety risks it presents to their communities.

Regardless of one’s position on the controversial train, the DOT should follow the law, ensure taxpayer resources are spent wisely, and certify that the projects it endorses are safe for our communities.

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