The strong argument for moving All Aboard Florida west

Publish Date: 
Friday, November 28, 2014 - 10:45am

By Eve Samples TCPalm

To hear All Aboard Florida explain it, the route its passenger trains will take from Miami to Orlando is a foregone conclusion.

Sending the 32 daily trains on tracks controlled by its sister company, Florida East Coast Railway, would require buying only two pieces of privately owned real estate.

The signals and bridges are already in place.

And, the company’s consultants claim in a report submitted to federal rail officials, it would be the least environmentally damaging option.

Still, it’s not a convincing enough argument for the thousands of Treasure Coast residents who want the Coral Gables-based company to find a less disruptive route for the rail expansion.

“The problem isn’t a few fast passenger trains,” said John Walker, a Jupiter resident who supports moving All Aboard Florida to land adjacent to Florida’s Turnpike.

The problem, Walker continued, is the expansion of freight traffic we can expect as the Panama Canal’s capacity expands.

That would have been fine a century ago, when automobile traffic was lighter and development more sparse around the FEC tracks.

“But coastal Florida has grown, has developed to the point where it just is not consistent with having a busy freight railroad,” Walker continued. He sees a narrow window of opportunity for retiring the FEC corridor — before it gets too big.

Walker, like many other readers who contacted me, likes a suggestion I wrote about last Sunday.The idea, advanced by Vero Beach-based real estate agent Ken Bradley, would shift All Aboard Florida’s trains west and convert the existing FEC corridor to a “linear state park greenway.” To pay for the linear park, Bradley suggested using proceeds from Amendment 1, which will raise an estimated $10 billion for water and land conservation over the next two decades.

“Nothing would do more for the quality of life in coastal Florida than to turn that rail into a greenway,” Walker said.

You’d think All Aboard Florida would have something to say about that idea.

Not so much.

The Miami-based wouldn’t even dignify the suggestion with a reply.

So I went back to the document their consultants produced on the project, the so-called draft environmental impact statement, to see what it said about other routes.

Keep in mind that it was written by consultants paid by All Aboard Florida.

They took a cursory look at other alternatives — along Interstate 95, Florida’s Turnpike and the CSX railway in the middle of the state.

The Turnpike option would require a new connecting line from West Palm Beach.

It would require buying 211 pieces of real estate.

It would disturb almost twice as many acres of wetlands and waterways as the FEC route — but it wouldn’t cut through any conservation land. The FEC route traverses 5 miles of it.

Those aren’t insurmountable options — but the consultants preferred the existing Florida East Coast tracks that traverse our coastal towns.

As they put it:

“Because of the small number of private land acquisitions (two), the project could be constructed in a reasonable time frame and would be practicable. Because it does not require entirely new rail infrastructure, signal and control systems, this alternative would be practicable based on cost.”

Translation: It’s cheaper for All Aboard Florida.

Remember, the company ultimately has to answer to publicly traded Fortress Investment Group LLC, which owns All Aboard Florida parent Florida East Coast Industries.

That bottom line looms large.

But don’t give up hope.

Last week, the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council approved its recommendations for the rail project.

One of them was to evaluate methods for alleviating the number of trains on the FEC tracks.

That could include shifting at least some of the traffic to the west, said Kim DeLaney, strategic development coordinator for the planning council.

Walker, a geologist by training, also envisions developing Florida’s coastal shipping route to alleviate the cargo load on rail lines.

Modernizing coastal shipping could mean new jobs.

And moving cargo off the passenger rail tracks could mean a faster trip from Miami to Orlando.

Walker thinks the state of Florida needs to ponder two questions:

What’s the best way to have a high-speed rail?

What’s the best way to run freight trains?

“The answer,” he said, “is certainly not to run them together.”