By Kit Bradshaw TCPalm
Say "All Aboard Florida," and you hit a hot button in the Jupiter-Tequesta area.
Tequesta's mayor Abby Brennan has been vocal and active in opposing the fast train that will stream through the area 32 times a day, in addition to an unknown number of freight trains that will also be on the FEC tracks.
Jupiter Mayor Karen Golonka says that the town has several concerns about the project by FECI to create fast train service from Orlando to Miami.
Even with some minimal benefits from the service, these future benefits are rapidly being outweighed by the impact of the trains going through the area at 110 miles per hour. FECI is a private company.
"Initially, we in the town were interested in the idea of additional passenger service, and the possibility that the train would reduce traffic on I-95," Golonka said.
"What we saw as the main benefit for Jupiter was that All Aboard Florida would double the tracks and, in my opinion, that would open to the door for Tri-Rail to come to Jupiter sooner. And Tri-Rail is a real value for the community to get to work, to take trips off the roads and for entertainment in West Palm Beach."
But, Golonka said, as more information became known about All Aboard Florida, Jupiter and Tequesta began to have more and more questions. And All Aboard Florida doesn't appear to want to provide answers, she says.
"First, the town has concerns about 32 trains a day being added along the tracks.
"Even if they are short trains, we will still have traffic congestion and delays waiting for the trains to go by. At first, we thought this would be more passenger trains, but less freight trains; but that isn't accurate unless you live south of West Palm Beach," Golonka said.
"And they aren't moving the freight trains to the CSX tracks to the west, not at all. As the Panama Canal project is completed, and there are more superships coming to the port, FECI is looking to have more freight trains."
Quiet zones are a real problem in the town and its environs. This too, has been controversial,
Golonka says, because early in the process, FECI said they would pay for the safety improvement at the railroad crossings that would protect the public with the faster trains that will travel as part of All Aboard Florida. Now, however, FECI says they won't pay for these double gates and other improvements at the crossings. Palm Beach and Broward counties have applied to have "Tiger Grants" to pay for the quiet zones, but there isn't a guarantee this will happen.
As the story of All Aboard Florida is being spun, there is another wrinkle.
Although FECI is applying for federal money to help build the train system, it refuses to release information on its proposed passenger numbers, what the cost of a ticket will be from Orlando to Miami and other salient information. FECI says the information is proprietary. This has caused several early supporters of All Aboard Florida, such as Gov. Rick Scott, to back away from supporting the venture.
"The entire process is very frustrating," Golonka said.
"Abby and I have been in touch on the situation, I'm on the Treasure Coast Planning Council, and I'm getting as much information as I can; and Councilor Wendy Harrison is on the Metropolitan Planning Organization and is trying to gather information as well. Based on the emails I receive, our residents don't want these trains going through our communities.
"The Loxahatchee River Bridge for both Jupiter and Tequesta is a particular concern because of its age, although the FECI said they will upgrade the mechanisms that raise and lower the bridge but not build a new bridge to accommodate the number of trains that will cross the river," Golonka said.
Mayor Brennan also cites safety concerns since the lowered bridge will impede public safety such as fire, police and emergency vehicles from crossing over the railroad tracks when the trains come through and perhaps back up as the Loxahatchee River Bridge slowly opens and closes.
In addition, because the railroad bridge is very low when it is lowered, any sizable boat will be stopped from heading in or out of Jupiter Inlet, which is known for its dangerous currents.
FECI has applied for a $1.4 billion federal loan from the Federal Railroad Administration, but before FECI can obtain these funds there must be an Environmental Impact Statement, that looks at all the ramifications of All Aboard Florida as it travels across terrain and bridges 32 times a day at between 90 and 110 miles per hour.
The EIS is expected to be published soon, and there will be public comments on the FECI request and the EIS before any loan is approved.
"I don't know if we will have 75 or 90 days to have public response when the study comes out - and there are public hearings. One thing that is scary about all this is that if the FECI was able to get money from a source other than the federal government, there would be no avenue for input from the public at all," Golonka said.