MY VERO: Getting a straight answer from All Aboard Florida

What about us? That’s what I wanted to know. Does All Aboard Florida plan to provide the good people of Indian River County with the same “sealed corridor” safety upgrades that the state last week ordered the high-speed passenger rail company to install at nearly 40 road crossings between West Palm Beach and northern St. Lucie County?

It was a straightforward question. Nothing particularly difficult or complicated. Nothing tricky or suspicious. Nothing that should’ve taken two days and a team effort to answer.

A simple “yes” or “no” would’ve sufficed, and allowed me to follow up with a couple of related questions, such as: Do AAF executives believe sealed corridors, installed at the company’s expense, would help soften the fierce and growing opposition to the project in Vero Beach and other Treasure Coast communities?

But there’s nothing simple about interviewing the folks at AAF, where top executives have mastered the art of responding in detailed ways that offer lots of information and seem to answer your questions – but really don’t.

That, in fact, is the problem with trying to interview a corporation: You’re not talking to a person, so you can’t pin anyone down and, in too many instances, you don’t get answers.

Just responses.

And, ultimately, that’s what I got last week, when I started with a phone call to an AAF corporate vice president, who told me I needed to talk to an AAF corporate spokesperson, who told me to put my questions in writing and send them via email, so she could consult with the appropriate AAF executives to get the answers to my questions.

Two days later, I had my answers … or at least their responses.

I asked: Does AAF plan to install in Indian River County the same costly, safety upgrades – specifically, the sealed corridors the company had refused to fund earlier this year – that the Florida Department of Transportation decided to require at road crossings between West Palm Beach and northern St. Lucie County?

They responded: “All Aboard Florida is installing the highest applicable safety measures recommended by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Each grade crossing is different, so different improvements could apply, which is why we, in coordination with FDOT, FRA and the Florida East Coast Railway, did a grade crossing diagnostic for each crossing along the corridor, including Indian River County.”

I asked: With the inspections concluded last week, when will AAF complete its analysis of the road crossings in Indian River County and render a decision on necessary upgrades?

They responded: “Based on the recommendations of the diagnostic team, All Aboard Florida is updating its design plans. We will schedule follow-up sessions when the plans are finalized and share those updates with each local government.”

As for whether AAF thought absorbing the cost of installing the costly safety upgrades might help soften opposition along the Treasure Coast, they responded:

“The reintroduction of passenger rail along the Florida East Coast Railway will introduce a new stream of benefits to everyone in the entire state, especially those living along the rail line. We look forward to continuing to work with each community along the corridor as we develop the safest railroad in the country.

“As a result of the grade-crossing improvements that will be paid for by All Aboard Florida, local authorities will be able to go through the federally mandated quiet zone process through the FRA and be able to implement quiet zones for a nominal cost.

“Additionally, All Aboard Florida is replacing older warning devices and safety equipment. This would have been the responsibility of the local authorities due to long-standing agreements.”

See what I mean?

The AAF folks responded to every question, offering all those words and all that information, but they didn’t really give any answers. They might as well have sent me the company brochure, telling me about all the benefits of having privately operated, high-speed passenger rail service connecting Orlando and Miami, with stops in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

And that puzzles me.

Those weren’t hardball questions. I wasn’t setting up any “Gotcha!” moment. For any sharp, public-relations-minded business executive, this was a gimme.

Assuming AAF isn’t derailed by the FRA’s Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected to be issued later this summer and carries the best hope of stopping the $2.5 billion project, we almost certainly are going to get the same safety upgrades here.

Bet on it.

There’s simply no way FDOT would require sealed corridors — four-quadrant gates and concrete medians to prevent motorists from driving around the barriers and across the tracks — for road crossings in St. Lucie County and not in Indian River County.

The reason?

Thirty-two times each day, between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., AAF trains will be hurtling through road crossings in both counties at similar speeds – up to 110 mph. Therefore, if sealed corridors are deemed a necessary safety upgrade in one county, then it would be bordering on reckless to not require them in the other.

“It’s not that we won’t get the corridors; they just haven’t gotten to us yet,” said Assistant County Attorney Kate Cotner, who has been monitoring the AAF project, which promises to bring to our community plenty of inconvenience and no tangible benefit.

“They did the crossing inspections down south first, and they just finished ours last week. They’re working their way north,” she added. “We should find out in the next couple of months, but, compared to when things began, All Aboard Florida knows it’s going to have to do more and pay more.”

So why not say it?

Why not seize this opportunity to say something that might sound less corporate, more conversational, more human?

Even if no official decisions have been made regarding the road crossings here, all some AAF executive needed to do was pick up the phone and say something like: “We’re still looking at the data, but, given that our trains will be traveling at similar speeds through St. Lucie and Indian River counties, it does seem logical that we’ll probably need to install sealed corridors in both of them.”

In addition, AAF could’ve used this opening to explain that if, as expected, the FDOT requires the installation of sealed corridors along our segment of the rail route, the company’s investment would significantly reduce the costs to the county and its affected municipalities for establishing “quiet zones” — road crossings where safety upgrades eliminate the need for trains to blare their horns to warn motorists and pedestrians.

Indeed, AAF said Monday in a follow-up email that sealed corridors at some crossings might fully satisfy the FRA requirements for quiet zones, though such a determination can’t be made “until the plans for each individual crossing are complete.”

People here want know these things, and it would’ve been so easy to simply tell them.

But there’s nothing simple about talking to a corporation – especially this one.

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