VERO BEACH — Despite Chairman Bob Solari’s best efforts to lay out the case that $250 million to provide Amtrak passenger rail up and down Florida East Coast tracks is a misuse of taxpayer funds, three of his colleagues on the dais stood behind a prior decision to back the Amtrak/FEC Corridor project.”I consider it close to fraud on the taxpayer,” Solari said, citing that projects like the passenger rail effort are paid for with borrowed deficit spending.
“We can do the right thing right now,” Solari said, urging his fellow commissioners to approve a resolution expressing opposition to the project. Solari said he took up the position — which he knew would be unpopular — because he “felt a strengthening wind of fiscal responsibility blowing” and saw it as an opportune time to strike out against some projects which he classifies as “boondoggles.”Joined only by Commissioner Gary Wheeler in his efforts to squash local participation in the project, Solari will now take his argument before the Indian River County Metropolitan Planning Organization, which had voted 8-2 to move forward with a rail stop in historic Downtown Vero Beach.”While I agree with you, clearly there is a process that we go through,” said Commissioner Wesley Davis, who voted with Commissioner Peter O’Bryan and Commissioner Joe Flescher to renew support of the project. Solari and Davis were the two dissenting vote when the project came before the MPO in July 2009. The Town of Orchid had also expressed concern that the project was not a prudent use of taxpayer money.”And when it came before the MPO the first time I hadn’t had two years to find out that there was no financial plan,” Solari said.Over the past two years, Solari said he has tried in vain to get a detailed financial analysis of all the costs of the project and how much, per rider of the train, the public will be subsidizing the efforts in the short- and long-term.Instead of answers, Solari said he only ran up against bureaucratic jargon and attempts to obscure the true costs of the rail service, which would link cities like Vero Beach to residential rail.”If you’re going to ask for a financial analysis of this, you need to do a financial analysis of the Interstate system or of our roads. No transportation system makes money,” said Commissioner Peter O’Bryan. “If we want to get rid of everything taht doesn’t make a profit, we should close our libraries. They don’t make a profit.”O’Bryan said he thinks the Amtrak passenger service will be a boon to tourism.”It will be a huge draw from people in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties to hop on the train, to take a shuttle to the beach and to stay in the hotels,” he said.Wheeler argued that Florida does not have the kind of culture where people grow up not owning an automobile but instead taking public transit. He said the culture would have to change before people gave up the freedom of their personal automobiles.He also agreed with Solari’s fiscal concerns.”At some point in the government — and I think we’re there — government has to stop justifying what’s good for the future when we can’t afford it,” Wheeler said.Solari said that, with budget constraints, he was also afraid that the Amtrak project would suck up all the available funding for public transit and that the county’s successful GoLine bus system would suffer as a result.Commissioner Joe Flescher, who hails from New York, a mass-transit city, said the Amtrak idea gets merit for foresight and planning, and that it must be judged on its potential and not its immediate profitability.”I’m sure 100 years ago when they were planning that (Manhattan) subway system, it was well in the red and it was seven different companies,” Flescher said. “We grossly discussed this at the MPO and the MPO had an overwhelming vote.”Flescher was the deciding vote on the issue.”If you call it a swing vote, I want to swing forward for the success of the people,” he said. “I think we need to be counted in on this.”The City of Vero Beach has been very high on the Amtrak project, voting to set aside land to build a depot at the historic train station site on 14th Avenue.Click here for a preview of Tuesday’s vote.Click here for previous coverage of the Amtrak/FEC Corridor Project.