Publish Date: 
Monday, November 20, 2017 - 9:15am

Susan Mehiel's Train Wreck Times - An Update from the Front Lines in the War Against AAF

Well, in the past few months some things have changed and some remain the same.   One of the best areas of this update is the AAF schedule itself…delayed, delayed, delayed.
The Miami Herald reported in August that “Florida East Coast Industries’ $3 billion high-speed rail service connecting West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami is now scheduled to begin by the end of 2017.”  How many delays is that…wasn’t the entire system supposed to be up and running by 2015…isn’t phase one operating, yet?  Music to our ears!
Station construction has been slowed particularly at the Orlando airport.  The new Brightline CEO, Dave Howard, told the Orlando Business Journal, “construction on the second phase of the 235-mile, privately funded rail system will commence next year.”  The OBJ also reports that “Construction on the nearly $2 billion Orlando leg is expected to take 24-30 months…setting it up for a 2020-2021 completion.”
Financing:  We note the various costs ranging from $3 billion to $3.5 billion (do we hear $4 bill?) and the cost of Phase 2 at $2 billion.  We also see the old saw – privately funded – being dragged out again.  So where’s the beef or should we say the billions?
Very recently, the Florida Development Finance Corporation approved a new batch of Private Activity Bonds for AAF, approved a year ago by the US DOT.  You’ll recall the first batch for $1.7 billion weren’t touched by the bond buyers with a 10 ft pole.  They are trying to sell $600 million for Phase 1, only – the phase that’s supposed to be up and running by the end of the year.
Interestingly enough, this time they appear to be in a hurry to grab some cash and of course the FDFC is bending over backwards to help them…despite Senator Mayfield’s unanswered requests for an explanation of how the quasi-governmental organization can use outdated information and approvals for the new request.  AAF is also moving forward without the cost of a brokerage firm to manage the sale. 
If this seems deliberately speedy, it is.  Rumor has it that the new congressional budget will end PAB’s and it explains the re-filing of papers with the DOT for a Railroad Rehabilitation and Infrastructure (RRIF) loan.  The old RRIF loan scheme – taxpayer subsidized financing of a ‘privately funded’ rail system.  Here we go again!
Safety:  With the mention of the RRIF loan, we’re reminded of the Environmental Impact Statement we had hoped to challenge the first time around.  We’re also reminded of the destruction the speed trains will wreak on our communities and our very lives.  That, too, has been in the news lately.
A train derailment before the system is even up and operating!
A Treasure Coast resident killed by AAF
AND we’ve had our worst fears confirmed – FEC is transporting LNG in south Florida on the same tracks  the speed trains will use!
The fact that they’re claiming they don’t have a permit requested to transport LNG on the northern portion is laughable.  Fortress Energy groups own or partner with two LNG producing facilities – in Martin  and Brevard Counties – and they WILL be transporting LNG if/when these facilities are complete.  As we said long ago, we have the documents approving LNG transport by rail to ports throughout the state from the US Department of Energy.
We hasten to add we pointed out the massive risk of operating passenger trains and LNG carrying freight trains within 2 miles of a nuclear power plant in Ft. Pierce.  We were blown off by every agency in Washington and told by the St. Lucie County emergency personnel it will be no problem.  Indian River County personnel should be in touch with their contacts at FP&L to voice their strong concerns about this situation.  The complications of an LNG breach near the power plant could have catastrophic ramifications.
With respect to the safety concerns we all have about AAF and the lack of concern shown by the US DOT and FDOT, Senator Mayfield and Representative Grall are working in Tallahassee on bills allowing FDOT some oversight of passenger trains in the state.  “The (Senate) bill requires increased transparency from railroads about their safety records and shifts costs associated with at-grade crossing maintenance from local governments to the railroads.”
We are pleased to announce the Mayfield bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Transportation Committee last week.  We will follow the house bill as well.
Ridership:  You may recall that we analyzed the bogus ridership studies done for the original EIS.  One telling problem was the analysis didn’t mention any competition from Tri Rail in the south counties.  It was also disclosed that AAF, to get the backing of the South Florida transportation agencies, had to sign a non-compete with Tri-Rail.
Interestingly enough, the South Florida Rail Transit Authority (SFRTA, Tri-Rail parent agecny) has initiated the development of even greater AAF competition. 
A second Tri-Rail line on the Florida East Coast Railway corridor, dubbed the "Coastal Link", is being planned, to be operational by 2020. …Combined with the existing Tri-Rail line, the Tri-Rail system would have a daily passenger ridership of almost 30,000; or approximately 9 million passengers per annum, doubling Tri-Rail's current ridership.
It was planned the Coastal Link would use the FEC right of way as was recommended back in 2004 by the FDOT.  But wait!  AAF is considering operating its own local, commuter rail in the same three county areas – Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.  If you’re wondering who’s on first – so are we!
Lastly, we’d like to point out a couple of interesting tidbits from the Tri-Rail 2016 financials.  Last year, Tri-Rail required over $88 million in federal, state and local tax subsidies – the largest portion, over $55 million, came from the state and all Florida residents’ wallets.  In addition, SFRTA received a $1.25 million grant from the Federal Transportation Authority for planning of Transit Oriented Development along the Treasure Coast.  Naturally, the central planners at the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council are all too happy to help implement TOD in our communities and are at the grant trough as partners. 
If our readers have followed the latest debates regarding the Vero Beach updated Land Use Plan and its major emphasis on increasing Mixed Use development (combining commercial and densely packed residential units in the same structure), it all starts to make sense.  Mixed Use, Train Stations and TOD are one in the same and now we have Tri-Rail setting the ground work for pushing their trains north on the backs of Treasure Coast residents and developers waiting in the wings to take advantage of the plan.
The battles continue…
At press time we received the attached letter from our friends at CARE.  We appreciate their great work on behalf of our communities.  A number of the areas covered in the letter expand on the points we’ve made here.  Look closely at the new ridership figures from AAF as you see that Tri-Rail is projecting doubling their ridership with the Coastal Link.
It’s never a dull moment and we are continually reminded of the great efforts of our elected officials and friends along the Treasure Coast.  Citizens Against Rail Expansion – CARE  and Citizens Against The Train – CATT
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
Susan Mehiel
M 828-606-5369
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