By Arnie Rosenberg TCPalm
Treasure Coast governments paid almost $5 million to Florida East Coast Railway and its affiliates in the past five years for a variety of costs related to railroad crossings, a Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation found.
And several Treasure Coast officials said they are concerned those costs will rise significantly once the railway’s sister company, All Aboard Florida, adds new tracks and improves the crossings as part of the $2.25 billion effort to establish a new passenger train line connecting Miami and Orlando.
All Aboard Florida has grown into the most contentious issue on the Treasure Coast as hundreds of people attended public meetings to complain about the potential negative impacts of 32 passenger trains per day speeding up down the tracks at up to 110 mph. Officials and residents expressed concern the new train service would impede emergency vehicles, delay motorists and boaters and cause more mishaps along the tracks.
Most of the local governments along the Florida East Coast Railway tracks pay the company and/or its affiliates to lease the road crossings over its tracks and the utility crossings beneath, records show. The governments also cover the costs to repair and maintain the crossings and the safety signals with the Florida East Coast Railway contracting for the work and sending the government the bills.
The Indian River County government paid more than $2 million to Florida East Coast Railway and affiliates in the past five years in connection with the railroad crossings, the most on the Treasure Coast, records show. County officials estimate the annual costs associated with the crossings could double once the new passenger-train services starts.
“Not only does the train bring potential devastation, it’s making us pay part of the costs for it,” said Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari, a critic of the train project. “Clearly Indian River taxpayers are not getting a good deal on any of it.”
The Martin County government paid more than $1 million to Florida East Coast Railway in the past five years in connection with railroad crossings and the St. Lucie County government paid nearly $600,000.
Robert Ledoux, a senior vice president with Florida East Coast Railway, said the company and its affiliates have the right to charge governments and businesses that want to use their land. Florida East Coast Railway established its ownership of the railroad corridor through a charter granted by Florida in 1895.
The railroad crossings require maintenance and repairs because of the constant pounding by trucks and cars, Ledoux said in an email. Florida East Coast Railway has maintenance agreements requiring the governments that own the roads crossing the railroad tracks to reimburse the company for the work needed.
“FECR makes no profit for performing the maintenance of each crossing,” Ledoux said. “In regards to additional maintenance for additional track, each agreement governs how that is handled, and FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation)-approved rates for repairs govern. The individual agreements between FECR and the public entities govern the fees and payments made between the parties.”
“FECR generates a lot of revenue from municipalities for those leases,” Jupiter Town Manager Andy Lukasik said. “Is that a legitimate revenue raise? Is it fair to claim that the public doesn’t have any right or interest in what happens in that corridor?”
The town’s consultant found that some of the land beneath the tracks is owned by the federal government, which granted an easement to Florida East Coast Railway, Lukasik said.
“I would surmise that some of the issues that the consultant found within the town probably extend throughout the corridor,” Lukasik said.
"Our roads cross their tracks. We have 100 years of paying for the privilege. The historic relationship is at best strained and at worst nonexistent." — Fort Pierce Mayor Linda Hudson
Ledoux said the railway acquired a piece of land in Jupiter from the federal government and built railroad tracks before the town was incorporated in 1925.
“FECR has an extensive file system of the hundreds of deeds that date back to the 1890s documenting the ownership of the land,” Ledoux said.
Most Treasure Coast government officials seem to be operating under the impression Florida East Coast Railway owns the land beneath and alongside the railroad tracks. Consequently, the governments pay Florida East Coast Railway’s bills associated with the crossings.
“Our roads cross their tracks,” said Fort Pierce Mayor Linda Hudson. “We have 100 years of paying for the privilege. The historic relationship is at best strained and at worst nonexistent.”
Indian River County Administrator Joe Baird said he believes his government paid more to Florida East Coast Railway than did any other government on the Treasure Coast in the past five years because the county has more railroad crossings and the railway has done more improvements recently.
“Up until a couple of years ago, it certainly wasn’t a big issue one way or the other,” Solari said. “While we would have preferred not to have paid for the maintenance, it was something historically required from us and something we could live with.
“But now we’re talking about a project which is orders of magnitude greater and different from what had been happening for at least the 34 years that I’ve been here,” Solari said. “Nothing like this has ever been proposed for the rail line before. It’s exponentially increasing the potential hazards for Indian River County. It just adds insult to injury that for these incredible hazards, the taxpayers of Indian River County are going to be paying significant additional dollars.”