Treasure Coast governments are cranking up the pressure on the Federal Railroad Administration to require a second environmental impact report on All Aboard Florida’s proposed high-speed passenger rail service.
For months, residents and officials have complained about the effect All Aboard Florida’s Miami-to-Orlando rail project would have on the Treasure Coast. The private rail company, in response, assured locals their concerns would be addressed in the federally required report, and that locals would have the chance to weigh in on the report during a subsequent 75-day comment period. But the document released by the railroad administration Sept. 19 overlooks the Treasure Coast, according to St. Lucie County Commission Chair Paula Lewis.“It’s like (it’s) a massive wasteland from Cocoa to West Palm Beach, ” Lewis said. “We all know that’s not true.”
The push for a second report started Nov. 18 when the Martin and Indian River county commissions voted to request the railroad administration perform a supplemental impact study before allowing the passenger rail project to move forward.
Now, multiple Treasure Coast governments, including Martin, Indian River and St. Lucie counties and Vero Beach and Stuart, are asking for an improved report.
Though the railroad administration accepted public comment on the impact statement at eight workshops and is continuing to accept written comment until Wednesday, the public has not had a fair chance to assess and respond to All Aboard Florida’s $2.25 billion project, according to some local officials.
“One of the things Indian River County requested was (for staff) to prepare a supplemental draft environmental impact statement, because (this report) really has not met all the requirements,” Rauth told the Martin County Commission Nov. 18. “Our suggestions really are based on reading the documents from Indian River County, some of the other cities and counties and the Coast Guard.”
Major information gaps — the report neglects to list Fort Pierce and Stuart as “affected environments,” inaccurately characterizes St. Lucie County as “low density residential and undeveloped” and presents track construction plans that are more than two-thirds incomplete — make it impossible to respond effectively, according to Rauth.
“Some people have mentioned extending the time,” she said about the 75-day comment period provided by the railroad administration. “This (report) is so inadequate, there’s not really any point to continuing to look at it.”
But the Treasure Coast’s proposed supplemental report could be a tough sell.
The railroad administration has not acknowledged a second impact statement as an option under consideration.
Rather, the administration will consider governments’ complaints about incomplete information as a factor in its overall evaluation. It will receive, categorize and respond to public comments in the final environmental impact statement, followed by the administration’s record of decision, which has no set release date, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Michael Cole.
“Public input, and that of local governments, is crucial. ... It is premature to comment on what findings the (railroad administration) may or may not come to as a result of the public comment period,” Cole said. “It’s not final. That’s why it’s called a draft.”
All Aboard Florida’s application for a $1.6 billion federal loan, not a particular construction or design stage, triggered the impact statement process.
“To be eligible for the loan — that’s what instigated the (environmental impact statement),” Cole said about All Aboard Florida’s pending application for a Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan. “It’s the (National Environmental Protection Act) required process.”
Still, Treasure Coast governments will submit written comments that ask for a new report that pays closer attention to their communities — not just Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando, where All Aboard Florida has planned stops.
“It’s clear in the draft they had little regard for Indian River County and zero for Sebastian,” Jim Hill, a Sebastian council member, said at the city’s Nov. 18 meeting. “There is absolutely nothing in there to say what they are going to do to mitigate the issues in our community.”
The new report must be comprehensive and correct what Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard describes as multiple inaccuracies.
The consultants that prepared the 522-page report ignored federal requirements “time and time again,” and used erroneous information to make their case, Heard said at the commission’s Nov. 18 meeting.
“We can’t put lipstick on this pig,” Heard said, “so let’s arm ourselves with data and analysis rather than the fictions (in the report).”
All Aboard Florida — which chose and paid the consultants who prepared the environmental impact statement — declined to specifically address a second impact statement. It is the railroad administration’s duty to comment on the report, not the company’s, according to spokeswoman Ali Soule.
Before Dec. 3, Martin County and Stuart officials will report information missing from the impact statement and make suggestions on how to improve the project.
Some key points from the county and the city:
Replace the St. Lucie bridge.
Create new track crossings where there is “historic and heavy” foot traffic.
Provide at least one northbound and one southbound stop daily.
Provide a supplemental comment period to review the 90 percent construction plans.
Renegotiate all grade crossing agreements.
Study the trains’ effect on Martin Health System’s Stuart location, a major medical facility east of the tracks.
Address the impact to Stuart’s local transportation including courtesy trams that routinely cross the tracks while shuttling riders to popular downtown locations.
Provide a written promise from All Aboard Florida and Florida East Coast Industries not to harm or remove approximately 100 downtown parking spaces.
Indian River County
Address climate change and analyze its effect on sea levels at bridge crossings.
Study floodplain mitigation.
Address construction’s effect on traffic and neighboring properties.
Study crossing delays: By 2036, traffic at the Oslo Road Crossing could result in 11-minute traffic delays, but this analysis is missing.
Evaluate the effect on northbound and southbound traffic on roads near the crossings; no morning hours were modeled.
Redo the draft environmental impact statement because the city, as well as Indian River County, was left out.
Indian River Shores
Find an alternate funding source to Florida’s proposed $215 million of taxpayer money.
St. Lucie County
Study the potential economic/property value impact in downtown Fort Pierce, the barrier islands, Indian River Drive and St. Lucie Village.
Clarify the number of crossings in St. Lucie County; the provided data is inconsistent.
Study impact to historic areas such as Fort Park, home of the 10,000 year-old Ais Indian Village Burial ground.
Address potential problems accessing major medical facilities west of the railroad tracks
Provide specific locations where pole-mounted wayside horns would be placed to reduce train horn noise.
Analyze all grade crossings, not just those at North Causeway and Seaway Drive.
Study the impact to pedestrians and cyclists.
Provide a local evacuation plan.
Port St. Lucie
The city does not plan to formally respond to the impact statement.
The project poses “significant public health, safety and welfare concerns,” but would not directly impact the city, according to the city council.
Sources: Written responses to the federal report from each of the listed governments.