The real story behind those proposed high-speed trains

Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari has independently delved further into the proposed All Aboard Florida project and its ties to Florida East Coast Industries and the Fortress Investment Group LLC – and arrived at a conclusion.

“It’s not about passenger rail service,” Solari said. It’s about freight trains. More of them – a lot more.

In fact, with the widened Panama Canal projected to double shipping capacity next year, we can expect to see freight-train traffic through our communities double, and possibly triple, in the not too distant future.

Is that why Fortress is so eager to embark on All Aboard Florida?

Is it possible Fortress wants to use Federal Railroad Administration loans and loan guarantees to build and upgrade tracks needed to accommodate additional freight trains, all under the guise of providing high-speed passenger service from Miami to Orlando?

“That’s all opinion, on my part,” Solari said. It’s an opinion based the big bucks being spent to expand the Port of Miami – the closest U.S. port to the Panama Canal.

It’s an opinion based on suspicions our local, state and federal representatives ought to investigate before All Aboard Florida gets rammed down our throats, forcing us to endure 900-foot-long trains hurtling through our community at 110 mph 32 times between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. each day.

There’s a lot of money to be made hauling freight up Florida’s east coast – far more than can be made transporting passengers.

Consider how little of its own money FECI will need to invest in the $1.5 billion All Aboard Florida project, which would be heavily funded and financed by federal and state loans and guarantees. Having already received a $215 million pledge from Gov. Rick Scott to help build a new terminal at Orlando International Airport, FECI has applied for a $632 million loan through the FRA to upgrade the stretch of tracks from Miami to West Palm Beach.

The company is expected to seek another $868 million in federal loans to enhance tracks from West Palm to Cocoa and build a new line from Cocoa to Orlando.

If those loans come through, simple math says the rail company wouldn’t have much of a stake. Fortress would have everything to gain and very little, if anything, to lose.

Think about it: If All Aboard Florida becomes a boondoggle, the company could eventually claim it is unable to continue its passenger operations without more government subsidies, walk away from a money-losing venture, default on those loans and stick taxpayers with the debt.

“I’ve had growing concerns about All Aboard Florida since the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council meeting last month,” Solari said. “They won’t tell us how much of their money is going into this. They say they don’t have to because they’re private. Yet they want government loans, which puts the taxpayers at risk.

“So, with more citizens expressing opposition, I started talking to more people in the community and gathering more information. The more I’ve looked at this thing, the more I found myself asking: ‘Who is this for?’”

A better question is: Who, exactly, is All Aboard Florida?

“I don’t know who we’re talking about anymore,” Solari said. “You’ve got the Fortress Investment Group, which is the parent company, and you’ve got Florida East Coast Industries.

But there’s also a Florida East Coast Railway. And I recently found a Florida East Coast Holdings Corp.

“I told the county attorney this is something we need to work on,” he added, “because it’s tough to tell who owns anything.”

So could All Aboard Florida be nothing more than what Solari called a “shell corporation,” a company that serves as a vehicle for business transactions without itself having any significant assets?

Could the high-speed passenger rail project be nothing more than a ruse to get the federal funding needed to upgrade and build the additional tracks necessary to handle an increase in freight?

Is it possible All Aboard Florida could someday shut down and default on its federal loans, while allowing Fortress and/or FECI to retain and profit from ownership of the tracks?

There’s cause for skepticism, even suspicion.

Then there’s this: Passenger rail service survives in America, and particularly in Florida, only with government subsidies. It’s not a money maker.

There’s no tangible evidence that All Aboard Florida would be different.

All Aboard Florida continues to move full speed ahead toward its early 2016 start-up date, despite mounting opposition in Sebastian and other Treasure Coast communities that will be forced to endure daily, day-long disruptions but receive no benefits.

“This project would do great damage to our way of life,” Solari said. “It would impact us in a half-dozen ways we know of and another half-dozen ways we haven’t thought of yet.”

More slow-moving freight trains passing through our city and county after the Panama Canal widening will cause additional traffic stoppages.

Imagine our railroad crossings blocked 40 to 50 times each day.

Let there be no doubt: We must derail this debacle before it destroys our peaceful, small-town quality of life with traffic backups, blaring horns, delayed emergency vehicles, public safety hazards along the tracks and the likely drop in property values in neighborhoods close to the crossings.

But can we?

“I’m two things – naïve and optimistic – but I believe we can stop it,” Solari said. “It’s going to take a ‘we’ to do it. If the citizens support their local officials, rise up and get involved, this thing can be fought.”

County commissioners have voted to seek more information about the project. They also:

  • Asked the FRA to extend from 45 to 90 days the comment period on the environmental impact statement, which is expected to bcome available in the next couple of weeks.
  • Urged the FRA to offer no special rates or deals regarding loans, leases and guarantees to the rail company.
  • Requested All Aboard Florida make its financial records public. Working along with local governments – and forming another front – are citizens groups, such as the Vero Beach-based American Coalition 4 Property Rights and Stuart-based Florida NOT All Aboard, which has scheduled a May 4 rally.

In the meantime, Solari said he hopes to meet with Rusty Roberts, FECI VP for corporate development.

He plans to share his opinion.

And ours.

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