Would All Aboard Florida derail Stuart's downtown?

Publish Date: 
Friday, June 13, 2014 - 6:15am

By Arnie Rosenberg Posted June 11, 2014 at 10:47 p.m. from TCPalm

STUART — Two years from now, it’s likely that 32 passenger trains will amble through downtown every day, day-in and day-out. No one yet fully understands how it would affect downtown Stuart. But it’s already generally accepted here — often with resignation — that a tripling of train traffic through the heart of the city can mean nothing good.

For the sleek, new, high-speed trains to connect Miami and Orlando in just three hours, they barely would slow down as they roll through downtown. But they wouldn’t stop.

Moreover, the railroad company also hasn’t said if construction of a second track would mean the loss of downtown parking.

“It certainly will have an effect on the area,” local historian Alice Luckhardt said. “It will almost kill downtown.”

Not everyone is quite as fatalistic.

“I’m trying to keep a positive attitude — that Stuart will continue to thrive and overcome — but there are going to be changes to downtown if it comes through,” a cautious Mayor Troy McDonald said. “It is going to change the character. We at the city will have to look at how it’s affected us and then react.

“We need to get answers from All Aboard Florida and be proactive,” he said, “but without answers, it’s hard to say” exactly how downtown would fare.

For city officials, the downtown businesses and the people who patronize them, there’s a laundry list of concerns: How long would the crossing gates be down each time one of the new passenger trains comes through? Would both main crossings in the downtown area, at Confusion Corner and at Sailfish Circle, be closed at the same time? How would that affect emergency vehicles? Would the frequent passenger trains — two each hour in addition to the 14 mile-long freight trains that already interrupt traffic each day — make driving through downtown even worse, especially during season? What would Aboard Florida do to avoid catastrophic congestion when key intersections are shut down for construction?

And high on everyone’s list is parking. Downtown stands to lose up to 108 spots if the railroad uses all the property it now leases to the city for parking. No one yet is saying if that will happen for sure, and if it does, how many spaces would be gone.

“All Aboard Florida has been working closely with the city of Stuart to minimize our impacts to the downtown area and are coordinating with the city on leases they have within the corridor,” All Aboard Florida said in an email, responding to Treasure Coast Newspapers’ inquiry about how much downtown property it would reclaim and how many parking spots would be lost.

The railroad hasn’t yet made the final decision, Rusty Roberts — vice president of corporate development for Florida East Coast Industries, which owns All Aboard Florida — told the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council on May 16.

BAD FOR BUSINESS

Ron and Edie Foland, nine-month residents here who also live in Maryland, aren’t happy about All Aboard Florida. Sitting recently outside the Osceola Café on Flagler Avenue, Ron Foland said a threefold increase in train traffic could have them looking for other dining options.

“We come here a couple of times a week for lunch,” he said. “It’s easy to get through the intersections. But all those trains would become objectionable.”

Carlos Romero, who opened The Place Barbershop on Flagler about four years ago, also isn’t a fan.

“I don’t like the idea,” Romero said. “A lot of people like to come down here for a haircut and park right in front of the shop. If they have to look for parking, they’re not going to come.

“It’s not going to benefit the town,” Romero said. “It’s just going to be good for the towns where the train stops.”

Historian Luckhardt looks to the recent past as she worries about the future. Downtown was like “a ghost town section” in the early 1970s, she said. “I’m afraid to see the same thing happen.”

Downtown’s revival began in the early ‘90s, and “people have been coming more and more the past five years,” said Luckhardt, who helps operate the Stuart Heritage Museum on Flagler Avenue, just steps from the existing track. “There’s activity here now. If those trains come through, it will put a crimp in it. There will be less people here, and it will hurt the historical integrity of this area.”

All Aboard Florida also would hurt entertainment businesses, food businesses “and even the way we do festivals on Osceola Street,” she said.

“Even now, when a train passes the museum, the windows and walls shake. It kicks up dirt and we’re cleaning it all the time. The passenger trains will have the same effect, and it will multiply what we get.”