By Jim Turner The News Service of Florida
State Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, has added more questions to a controversy about the return of passenger rail service along Florida’s East Coast.
While most of the complaints have focused on trains’ potential impacts on residential and downtown areas, Altman this week requested Attorney General Pam Bondi look into a lease he says could keep the proposed Miami-to-Orlando All Aboard Florida rail service from stopping in Brevard and Indian River counties.
Altman added in a letter Tuesday to Bondi that he is concerned residents of the Space and Treasure coasts are not represented on the Central Florida Expressway Authority, which oversees most toll roads in Lake, Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.
Such a change would require approval from the Legislature.
This past session, lawmakers expanded and renamed the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority as the Central Florida Expressway Authority.
Last year, All Aboard Florida signed a 45-year-lease to use land south of the Beachline Expressway between Orlando and Cocoa Beach. The lease requires All Aboard Florida to pay the state $275,000 a year for the land on which the passenger rail line is built and operated.
The expressway authority oversees much of the Beachline in Orange County. The Florida Department of Transportation maintains the roadway from the eastern end of Orange County into Brevard County.
The lease includes a provision that would require All Aboard Florida to make payments if the use of the right-of-way reduces auto traffic along the Beachline, which generates revenue through tolls.
Altman contends All Aboard Florida could use the provision as an excuse to bypass future plans for a station in Brevard or Indian River counties.
“The practical application is there will never be stops in Brevard and Indian River counties if they have to make up for revenue lost from the tolls not collected due to the decreased automobiles traveling to Orlando,” Altman said in the letter. “That is an extraterritorial tax imposed by the Expressway Authority.”
Expressway Authority spokesman Jeff Marshall said he hadn’t read Altman’s letter but that he could see how the senator came to such a conclusion.
“If there is something in our right-of-way that would reduce our traffic, we would have to be compensated,” Marshall said.
On Thursday, All Aboard Florida sent this statement to The Palm Beach Post:
“As a result of the negotiations with the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, the provisions for expansion considerations were clearly laid out in the final documents. These provisions were designed to allow for the possibility of future expansion, while simultaneously protecting the OOCEA bond holders from economic penalties arising from any competitive use of their right away.
“It has become quite clear in our meetings with community leaders there is a high degree of interest for a stop in Brevard County - we look forward to the day when we can appropriately consider all of the expansion opportunities along the corridor.”
Altman’s letter comes amid vocal opposition to the passenger service from most Treasure Coast governments, some business groups and affluent residential groups in northern Palm Beach and Martin counties.
The concerns are financial as well as about safety and quality of life.
The marine industry expects to be impacted as boaters would be delayed due to drawbridges being lowered as many as 32 times a day for the trains, which would also tie up traffic in small downtown commercial centers.
Meanwhile, opponents contend tourism and property values would drop due to the trains, which could also create noise within wealthy gated communities near the tracks.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, held a press conference June 26 to announce his opposition.
Gov. Rick Scott, who in 2011 rejected federal funding for high-speed rail across 84 miles of Central Florida, has asked All Aboard Florida President Michael Reininger to “be sensitive” to residents’ concerns as plans for the privately run rail service progress.
In his letter to Bondi, Altman said he has met with hundreds of people in Brevard and Indian River counties, which he represents, about the train that is expected to travel through the region at 110 mph without stopping.
“I no longer call it All Aboard Florida but ‘Not Onboard Florida,’ ” Altman said in the letter.