Martin County should put up its own financial stake — to the tune of a $50 million bond — if it wants to gamble with the future of southeast Florida transportation, according to court documents filed by All Aboard Florida and the U.S. Department of Transportation late Friday.
Martin County’s attempt to block tax-exempt bonds for All Aboard Florida through legal action not only jeopardizes the passenger rail project — it could increase costs by up to $277 million — but also threatens the well-being of about 36 percent of Florida’s population, according to All Aboard.
The 7.1 million people who live in Orange, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties are relying on Miami-to-Orlando passenger rail, All Aboard said.
“(These residents) suffer every day from badly congested roads,” the company said in the court documents. “Nonetheless, because some of Martin County’s 153,000 residents are hostile to the rail line which existed long before they did, their local leaders are now seeking to prevent” its completion.
It’s only fair that county taxpayers pay for the costs of delaying All Aboard’s $3 billion rail project if, eventually, their actions are determined to be unlawful, attorneys for co-defendants All Aboard and DOT said in the documents.
Martin County last month filed legal action stating that All Aboard Florida and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which in December gave preliminary approval to bond issuance, violated environmental laws by approving the financing before receiving final federal approval.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper should prevent sale of $1.75 billion of tax-exempt bonds until the federal requirements have been met, according to Martin County.
Indian River County in a separate legal filing also has asked the court block the bonds, and Cooper is expected rule on both requests at a May 29 court hearing in Washington D.C.
Cooper should allow the bond process to continue because Martin County’s case is without merit, according to the defendants.
Martin County’s argument that DOT incorrectly applied a law meant for highways, not railroads, when conditionally approving the bonds.
The Florida Department of Transportation already has used highway funding for the project: Since 2012 it has spent $9.3 million of federal highway money on track upgrades and plans to spend more in the future, according to court documents. If any portion of a rail project is eligible for federal highway funding — which grade crossings are, according to FDOT’s actions — the entire project is eligible for highway funding, U.S. DOT and All Aboard said in the filing.
U.S. DOT already has used a similar argument to approve nearly $1.7 billion in highway funds for crossing upgrades on rail projects in Maryland and Denver, according to court documents.
But, use of the funds to upgrade crossings doesn’t mean All Aboard Florida — marketed as the country’s first privately owned, operated and maintained passenger rail — has received public money, the company has said previously.
Rather, the federal funds were paid through FDOT to Florida East Coast Railway, All Aboard Florida’s sister company and the freight line that would share the existing rail corridor, according to All Aboard.
Bond issuance also would depend on the Florida Development Finance Corp., the quasi governmental agency charged with issuing the bonds, which has not yet given its final approval. The finance corporation was expected to make its final financing decision on May 28 but “scheduling conflicts” prompted All Aboard Florida and others to postpone the decision.