Sally Swartz: To oppose All Aboard Florida, here comes the money train

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Last week, two Treasure Coast governments pledged cash to fight All Aboard Florida, and a private group revealed new plans.

At meetings in Martin and Indian River counties, commissioners said they’ll spend a total of $4.2 million to battle the Miami-to-Orlando high speed passenger rail service. AAF has stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

On the Treasure Coast, rail traffic would increase from 14 to 26 freight trains daily. AAF would add 32 high speed passenger trains that would zoom through densely populated coastal areas at speeds of 70 mph.

Martin pledged $1.4 million and Indian River $2.7 million for the fight.

In Martin, the commission must approve any money spent. County Attorney Mike Durham said he’s talking with several attorneys, hoping to find someone to represent Martin independently to deal with county issues.

On Wednesday, a group called Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida – a.k.a. CareFlorida LLC and, for check-writing purposes, CareFL, LLC – packed Stuart’s Lyric Theatre for an information session and money-raising rally.

Spokesman Brent Hanlon, who serves as vice chairman and treasurer, said the group’s 7-member steering committee manages its money.

The group includes more than 25 homeowners associations, the town of Jupiter Island, Jupiter Medical and Martin Health Systems and “supporters from Brevard to Palm Beach County.”

The group isn’t registered under any of its names with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, required before a group can solicit money from the public. But Hanlon said it doesn’t have to register with DACs because it’s not a charitable organization. The group can ask for money as a limited liability company (LLC), he said, and its books are open to contributors.

Charismatic lawyer Steve Ryan, who won a railroad case with different issues in Minnesota, said he wants to attack the high speed rail on several fronts – such as questioning state government failures to hold AAF accountable, pointing out safety issues and taking legal action.

Ryan said he didn’t want to discuss strategy details, because he suspected an AAF representative was in the audience. The fight he would wage, which carries no guarantee of winning, could cost $3 million over the next 18 months.

Some urban residents don’t understand why northern Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties oppose the train. AAF officials paint opponents as a few backwoods dissidents unhappy because AAF won’t stop in their towns.

But most worry about more problems than train stops.

Ambulances have to cross train tracks several times to reach hospitals in Martin and Jupiter. Getting fast medical help would be impossible.

School buses would be held up, causing problems with school schedules. Traffic would back up. Noisier train whistles blasting constantly would make dozens of neighborhoods unpleasant places to live. Train noise and traffic tie ups would make thriving downtown Stuart unbearable and inaccessible for residents and tourists.

Waterfront homeowners wouldn’t be able to get their boats past railroad bridges that block waterways. A resulting drop in waterfront property values would affect residents and cause huge drops in tax revenue.

AAF won’t pay to upgrade safety features at crossings or address noise issues, so local governments would have to pay the bills – and also accept liability for accidents.

The simple solution everyone wants wins sustained applause at every meeting: Move the trains west, away from the Florida East Coast Railway tracks that cut through residential neighborhoods and downtowns.

Almost 50,000 residents have signed petitions opposing All Aboard Florida.

For the first time, governments and individuals are putting money behind their gripes.

AAF leaders, frequently with the collusion of federal and state officials, work hard to make residents believe AAF is a “done deal.”

Maybe not.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. Find her blog posts and others at The Palm Beach Post Opinion Zone. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Sally Swartz


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