By the end of the decade, travelers into and out of Orlando International Airport will have a new option when it comes to getting to south Florida: high speed rail.
The project known as All Aboard Florida will maintain two terminals, one at OIA and a second in downtown Miami. The train will also have stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, but as planned right now, nowhere else.
Communities along the Atlantic Coast have expressed concern over costs associated with the rail line, as well as its lack of service to their communities. In Brevard County, where the county has set aside $330,000 a year for rail crossing maintenance, commissioners, including Andy Anderson, have been critical of the train, citing concerns over cost and expected revenue.
“To make commuter rail, you got to have ridership, ridership, ridership,” says Florida Tax Watch President Dominic Calabro. “You got to make sure your ridership is always high.”
In May Florida Tax Watch published its report, The Rise of Commuter Rails in Florida. In the report, Tax Watch identifies the possible strengths and weaknesses of commuter rail, with the reporting finding “the current commuter train projects in Florida have generated some economic activity and job growth in Central and South Florida, though major concerns exist for residents living and working near the rail lines and many taxpayers around the state.”
To ease some of these concerns, Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter this week to the president of All Aboard Florida, Michael Reininger, asking him to “be sensitive to the impact of additional rail traffic in the rail corridor to our communities, their home values and public safety." Scott also asked All Aboard Florida to extend the public comment period from 75 to 90 days to give “communities more opportunity to have their specific concerns addressed.”
But concerns with the train aren’t limited to costs associated with service and access.
In an October 2013 memo, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority wrote, “The tourism industry has been exceedingly concerned that the railroad is a front for gambling.”
Eyewitness News has learned that the planned rail terminal in Miami will be about a mile and half from the proposed site of a new casino.
In 2011 Malaysian gaming company Genting purchased the waterfront property, which had been occupied by the Miami Herald, for $420 million. The property is connected to the train terminal by Miami’s elevated Metro-Mover.
While Genting purchased the property in 2011, little has been done at the site, and at present most of the existing Miami Herald building remains. In 2012 Genting announced plans for a 5,000-room casino, however, the company has since pulled back from those plans amid a public outcry and lack of action by the Florida Legislature in approving destination casinos.
“There should be more concern locally,” says Mike Cantone, of County Watch. “All Aboard Florida will turn into the casino express.”
But All Aboard Florida disputes this claim, telling Eyewitness News in a statement, “All Aboard Florida is not associated or involved with any gambling initiatives nor plan any involvement in the future. Our passenger service is a viable business model that will serve millions of passengers each year and is in no way dependent upon any outside activity or venue.”
Despite the statement from All Aboard Florida asserting that it is not motivated by or serving the gaming industry, there are other connections between the rail and gambling.
All Aboard Florida is owned by Florida East Coast Industries, which since 2007 has been owner by a company called Fortress Investment Group. Fortress is an investment management firm with significant gambling interestsm including Penn National Gaming. Fortress is also the parent company of Flagler Development, a company that once employed Scott’s chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth.
Prior to working for Flagler, Hollingsworth was a member of Scott’s transition team when he took office. According to internal emails, Hollingsworth helped draft the letter that was ultimately sent by Scott to Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2011 rejecting $2.4 billion in funding for a high speed rail project from Orlando to Tampa. Still serving the governor, Hollingsworth in February 2011 helped to vet candidates for Florida DOT secretary, narrowing down the list to three names, including the eventual secretary, Ananth Prasad.
After leaving the governor’s office, Hollingsworth took a position within Flagler’s right-of-way access division. While employed by Flagler, Hollingsworth met with then Scott Chief of Staff Steve MacNamara. After MacNamara resigned in 2012, Hollingsworth returned to the governor’s office, taking over as chief of staff.
Upon his return Hollingsworth issued what became known as a “firewall memo” essentially directing the office to prevent his involvement with railroad decisions, however, plans for the railroad were already underway.
On June 25, 2013, Florida DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad, who was vetted by Hollingsworth, announced a 50-year lease with All Aboard Florida, with an option for another 49 years for right-of-way access along State Road 528, also known as The Beachline -- a crucial piece of connecting OIA to existing rail already operated by Florida East Coast.
In response to questions about the connections, Frank Collins, the communications director for Scott, issued the following statement to Eyewitness News: “All Aboard Florida is 100 percent a private venture. No state funding has been provided, and no subsidies for future operations will be provided for the project. To help ensure families have their voices heard, Governor Scott has asked All Aboard Florida and the Federal Railroad Administration to extend their comment periods so families questions are properly answered.”