At the May 20 Economic Development Council meeting, County Attorney Dylan Reingold and Assistant County Attorney Kate Cotner presented an update on All Aboard Florida (AAF) that clarified what we know about the proposed project and more importantly, what we do not know.
We do know that the plan calls for 16 high-speed passenger trains to make four stops: Orlando, West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. The route from Orlando to Cocoa along the 528 Bee Line Highway does not pass through any municipalities and would require all new tracks. Between Cocoa and Miami, however, existing FEC tracks will be used alongside a new parallel track. It will pass through many municipalities and railroad crossings (114 crossings in Palm Beach County alone).
According to the AAF website, ten-car trains with a capacity of 400 passengers, will make 16 trips a day each way, passing through Vero Beach at 110 mph. (In Stuart, the speed will only reach 35-45 mph due to the bridge and curves going through town).
When representatives from AAF have been asked about potential stops along the Treasure Coast, Cotner said the response has been “let’s get through phase one first.” But she added that phase two will probably create routes to Tampa and Jacksonville. We should also keep in mind that the AAF goal is to limit the Orlando-Miami trip to three hours. “That number appears in all their copy because it is the only way they can compete with taking a flight or driving,” says Cotner.
All trains will pass through Vero Beach between six in the morning and nine at night. All passenger trains, that is.
Currently, 12 freight trains a day also pass through town. According to Cotner, “But this is a historically low number because of the recession. We can expect that number to increase.”
Typically, those freight trains are filled to capacity inbound to Miami, but are 75 percent empty outbound. We do know that the Panama Canal expansion is expected to double capacity starting next year. Miami’s port can accommodate those deep draft ships and with the opening of the Miami downtown bypass tunnel, increased freight can move faster once it is off-loaded on to trains. (The closest deep water port north of Miami is in Virginia). That increase in volume could fill outbound trains from Miami. It could also result in adding more freight trains and double-stacking containers.
The AAF upgrade plan includes a second, parallel track, presumably one for slower moving freight trains and one for high speed passenger trains. However, according to Cotner, if the passenger service fails, presumably both tracks could be used to move freight.
So all this begs the question asked in the Economic Development Council meeting to which AAF representatives have not supplied an answer: Is the anticipated growth of rail freight the true reason for upgrading and adding a second track? Cotner pointed out, “Freight is very profitable for Florida East Coast Railway and FEC Industries, which are both owned by the Fortress Investment Group out of New York, which manages $62.5 billion of assets. This would be their first passenger rail service investment.”
Cotner described the total investment required to complete this project as “fuzzy.” The $2.3 billion total includes a $1.5 billion (or $1.6 billion) Federal Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RIFF) loan. It is administered by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for development of railroad infrastructure, passenger or freight. The RIFF loan is to be collateralized, but Cotner sees some question over what constitutes collateral.
Another area of concern would be safety upgrades at all railroad crossings. We do know that the AAF has promised to pay 100% of all required safety upgrades. What we don’t know is the definition of “required.”
“The Florida Department of Transportation is in charge of regulating rail,” according to Cotner, “but there are no rules regarding high speed passenger rail. So they went to the Federal Railroad Administration for guidance on how to regulate it. Last month the FRA came back and said the proposed safety measures were not appropriate for high speed rail service. They recommended a sealed corridor.”
The definition of “sealed corridor” beyond preventing access to the railroad tracks by vehicles or pedestrians in the path of an oncoming train is also being defined. The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, in Executive Director Michael Busha’s March 10 letter to our congressional delegation members, outlines a number of the region’s concerns, noting that we are still waiting for the Federal Railroad Agency’s definition of sealed corridors.
This is important because the difference in cost for sealed corridors is at least $47 million more than the upgrades AAF agreed to pay for. Cotner says the AAF “is leaning toward doing what it takes.”
What isn’t being discussed is the cost of maintaining those crossings and quiet zones, so the trains do not have to sound horns. Local governments are responsible for maintaining crossings and the federal government can provide quiet zone money, but only local governments can apply for it.
The much-discussed Environmental Impact Study (EIS) is a requirement for the federal RIFF loan. The EIS will cover issues including the trains’ effect on water and air quality, bridges, endangered species and pollution, among others. Cooperating agencies include the U.S. Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Aviation Administration. They will provide input into the EIS.
Once the first draft of the EIS is presented, there is a 45-day comment period during which all objections or concerned must be presented to the FRA. That will begin in the next few weeks. “We need to mention everything we’re concerned about,” says Cotner, “or we will lose the chance to be heard.”
According to County Attorney Dylan Reingold, the county has requested a 90-day comment period and has hired an outside consultant to help evaluate the Environmental Impact Study. Reingold’s office is also hiring outside counsel to assist through the process.
Members of the Economic Development Council at this presentation asked a number of questions, many of which have not been addressed. But one member, a frequent traveler on European high speed rail, pointed out that those tracks are either built in valleys or on berms, and there are no street crossings. The potential for problems at the hundreds of crossings between Cocoa and Miami is huge, he said.
The next step will be presentation of the Environmental Impact Study, date to be announced.