June 27--STUART -- Opponents of All Aboard Florida gained an influential ally Thursday with Republican Sen. Joe Negron announcing he will fight the express passenger rail service and do what he can to block a $1.5 billion federal loan the company is seeking.
During the spring legislative session, Negron, who represents areas in Northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, was noncommittal on his opinion of All Aboard Florida. The company plans to run 16 round trip trains per day from Miami to Orlando on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
But Negron, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he was moved to oppose the project because the funding includes a federal loan, and he sees no advantages for his constituents, many of whom live in communities bisected by the tracks. All Aboard Florida trains may travel as fast as 110 mph from West Palm Beach to Cocoa.
"This project was marketed to our community as entirely funded with private funds," Negron said. "We subsequently learn that the linchpin of the project is a $1.5 billion federal loan."
All Aboard Florida President Michael Reininger said he would have liked Negron to keep an open mind until the release of an environmental impact statement that will address many of the concerns people have with such issues as horn noise, delays at crossings and marine traffic congestion at drawbridges.
The environmental impact statement was expected to be released in the spring. A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said Thursday that he had no updates on its completion.
"We are all awaiting the results of the draft environmental statement so we can see what the evidence really says," Reininger said. "It's unfortunate that the senator is taking this position and that his review did not include reaching out to us."
Negron's announcement was made in a Stuart events hall near the foot of the Florida East Coast Railway St. Lucie River drawbridge.
The St. Lucie bridge is one of a handful of drawbridges along the FEC tracks that give boats access to the Atlantic Ocean. Charter fishing companies, as well as pleasure boaters, are concerned the increase of 32 trains per day will cause mass boat backups in areas that can already be tricky to navigate.
"As the boats stack up on either side, it's very difficult for them to hold their positions, and that's a dangerous situation," said George Gentile, chairman of the Jupiter Inlet District.
The district began measuring boat traffic Jan. 14 at the Loxahatchee River railroad drawbridge to learn more about the impact of an increase in bridge closings.
Through April, 23,000 boats have gone through the Jupiter Inlet, an average of about 236 per day.
Gentile said the drawbridge typically must close for 20 minutes to let trains pass, including a 15 minute lead time, three minutes for the train to clear the bridge, and more than two minutes for it to reopen.
Passenger trains will be traveling faster than freight trains, but even if the bridge is closed for 18 minutes, that's more than nine hours the bridge will be closed in addition to the freight train closures.
Reininger said he can't seem to get across one point: millions of dollars will be invested in modernizing the bridges to add capacity, be more efficient and increase reliability.
"There will be a significant improvement to the situation as it exists today," Reininger said.
Negron also mentioned the $44 million that All Aboard Florida said in a bond prospectus it would need to connect its Miami train station with Tri-Rail. The prospectus noted that seeking a state grant is one way to get funding for the connection, but Gov. Rick Scott has said no state money will be used to pay for the train.
"My instinct tells me there will probably be other state issues that will intersect with this project," Negron said.
Tequesta Mayor Abby Brennan, who also spoke to the estimated 100 people who attended Negron's announcement, said she's concerned not just with public safety, but what she feels is a lack of transparency and consideration for residents.
"We're still not getting information," Brennan said. "It's as if we were completely expendable to the north."
All Aboard Florida filed a lawsuit in May to keep a ridership survey and other documents from being released as a public record.
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