What's Not To Like About Florida All Aboard?

Publish Date: 
Sunday, June 22, 2014 - 9:30am

By Martha Musgrove June 22, 2014 See Full Article at the Sun Sentinel


In his day, Florida's visionary Henry Flagler was a complex, risk-taking entrepreneur, adept at playing hard-ball to get what he wanted. He didn't always play fair, but as he built his railroad he was careful to also build the markets needed to sustain it. Keep that in mind while assessing the impact of All Aboard Florida and those laying claim to the Flagler mantle.

Along comes privately owned All Aboard Florida betting that, with $1.5 billion in federal loans and guarantees, it can successfully introduce high-speed trains to whisk people from Miami to Orlando in three hours, with stops only in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. What's not to like?

Quite a lot, really. All Aboard may be a job-generator, but hundreds of people have turned out to protest adding 32 daily passenger trains to the 14 daily freight trains now rolling through communities east of I-95. Their concerns: noise, safety, delayed and snarled traffic at crossings, new blight on painstakingly redeveloped and restored downtowns, frequent and prolonged closures of railroad bridges.

There are remedies for many of the complaints. No-horn blowing "quiet zones," for example, treat both noise and safety concerns. But the "safety enhancements" required to establish such zones are expensive and current law requires local government to pay for them. Why? Assuring public safety at highway-rail crossings and the "mitigation" of noise ought to be a routine "cost of doing business" for railroads. The debate over changing the law needs to start, but may not. It competes with a real "witches brew" of sexier All-Aboard stories:

1. WFTV-Channel 9 in Orlando recently aired a report that what's actually coming down the rails is a Casino Express. All Aboard denies that, but hey, we already have Casino Cruises and it's one way to build ridership. Based on a December report by the Congressional Research Service, high-speed passenger rail needs six to nine million riders to achieve profitability without subsidies. Acela boards 3.3 million passengers. All Aboard will have to depend on tourists.

2. In Tallahassee, All Aboard is in court trying to stop public release of "proprietary" studies of ridership and revenue that it gave to the Florida Department of Transportation, Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, and Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.

3. Of course, I've saved the best for last: For months critics have been asking why — if there's a profit to be made from high-speed passenger rail — doesn't All Aboard go get a loan from its corporate parent Fortress Investment Group? A publicly traded investment management company, Fortress has a $3.3 billion market cap. On Tuesday, FIG briefly surfaced in a Bloomberg report that All Aboard Florida Holdings sold $405 million in bonds at 12 percent. The holding comp and its sister, All Aboard Florida, are subsidiaries of Florida East Coast Industries, which Fortress bought for $2.65 billion in 2007.

The ghost of Henry Flagler must be beaming.