By Sally Swartz Opinion Zone
The parking lot at Stuart’s Kane Center is full; the extra cars land in a lot across the street and in a swale beside Salerno Road.
Florida Not All Aboard covers a car with a giant sign: “All Aboard Florida —NOT!! a done deal!” Opponents of the proposed high-speed passenger rail sell “Shoo Shoo Big Choo Choo” buttons for a buck at the door.
Men and women in suits, wearing Citizens Against Rail Expansion buttons, talk in groups on the front sidewalk. Newspapers estimate the crowds at 750-800, and an informal head count is more than 1,000.
Inside, the Federal Railroad Administration seeks public comments on an environmental impact statement the railroad prepared.
It’s a surreal landscape: Wealthy Jupiter Islanders beside retirees from the mainland, environmentalists and Realtors, people of different age groups crowded around tables to write comments. Even Martin residents that favor unbridled growth and the careful growth crowd find a common enemy in All Aboard Florida.
All Aboard Florida would link Miami and Orlando with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. It would send 32 passenger trains a day rocketing through Treasure Coast communities and add more freight trains for an eventual total of 50 a day.
Thursday’s substitute for a public hearing is an odd production. Big sheets of cardboard with long and boring explanations about various aspects of All Aboard Florida line the walls. A slide show with a few chairs has a few watchers. So does a laughable animation showing dozens of boats speeding through the open railroad bridge. The bridge closes and a train crosses in seconds, then opens for more boats to speed through.
Opponents quickly post a video of it on Facebook, where it draws derisive comments.
An AAF rep drags a supporter around to talk to reporters. Mike Cieslinski, a Stuart resident for two years, said he would drive to West Palm Beach to take the train to Miami for sports events.
Men in suits from AAF and AMEC, the environmental engineering firm that prepared the open house, mill about, smiling smugly and chatting with Martin residents. I ask one, Brad Flom, what All Aboard Florida plans to do with Stuart’s ancient, rusty and rickety railroad bridge. “We hope,” he said, “to get another 30 years out of rehabilitated bridges.” So is the Stuart bridge on the rehab list? He directs me to another suit, but the guy vanishes by the time I elbow through the crowds.
Realtor Julia Sansevere, who sells luxury waterfront homes, worries home values will drop and the whole county real estate market will tank if the high-speed train goes through. Dennis Fadden, president of Martin’s Board of Realtors, agrees, and also worries about marine navigation for those luxury homes with docks. No one answers his letters or concerns.
Greg Braun, one of the county’s top environmental scientists, turns in comments citing the railroad’s failure to address how more train traffic will affect wildlife, its failure to include the Savannas State Preserve in its plans, and concerns about additional tracks and trains affecting fire management there and at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
Lisa Standley, with the firm running the open house, said the feds’ head count relies solely on sign-in sheets. There are a couple sheets with a few signatures on a table at the entrance to the room, but no one tells residents they must sign in to be counted. Why not?
“Thanks for telling me about this,” she said, walking away.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who has led opposition to All Aboard Florida, is surrounded seconds after he walks in the door. State Sen. Joe Negron seems less popular; particularly after the recent revelation that his law firm supports it. Stuart Mayor Troy MacDonald is there, along with Martin commissioners Sarah Heard, Ed Fieldling, Anne Scott and John Haddox. Both city and county governments oppose the proposal.
Residents don’t like the format of the meeting. “It’s a zoo,” said Len Sucsy, with The Guardians of Martin County, a group that supports Martin’s protective growth plan.
“It’s very poorly thought out, organized and executed. It’s not a way the public can express feelings about All Aboard Florida,” Sucsy said. “And there is no way to find out true numbers for such things as ridership. It’s all being hidden; there is no transparency.”
K.C. Traylor, director of Florida NOT All Aboard, calls the meeting “Show and tell for All Aboard Florida.”
Realtor Sansevere agrees. “All Aboard Florida is the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The good people of Martin County have been told he’s wearing a beautiful embroidered coat,” she said, “but they see right through it. He really is naked.”
More public meetings this week are set from 3:30 – 7 p.m. Wednesday in Vero Beach at Indian River State College in Richardson Hall, 6155 College Lane; and Thursday at Port St. Lucie Civic Center, 9221 S.E. Civic Center Place.