Monday, November 20, 2017
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott supports controversial rail project on Florida's east coast

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TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott, who faced intense criticism for rejecting federal money for high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando, has new train troubles for favoring a controversial rail project on Florida's east coast.

Scott supports All Aboard Florida, a private passenger rail venture from Miami to Cocoa and eventually to Orlando's airport. Where Scott sees jobs, local residents and elected leaders see big problems.

"I find it reprehensible that you or any other politician would be trying to spoil our quality of life by supporting this boondoggle," Ronald Adamson of Sebastian wrote to Scott.

Starting in late 2016, All Aboard Florida's 32 daily trains would speed up and down the tranquil Treasure Coast along Florida East Coast Railway tracks built by Henry Flagler more than a century ago. The tracks have not been used for passenger service since 1968.

Affected residents, who chose the Treasure Coast to avoid the noise and congestion of Miami and Orlando, are hostile to the idea of becoming a high-speed pathway between two big tourism hubs with Scott's support.

"I am once again in awe of your blatant disregard for our beautiful and peaceful area," Joyce Mazzer of Port St. Lucie wrote to Scott.

Martin and Indian River counties oppose the project, St. Lucie County is expected to follow and several cities along the route also have lodged opposition. The city of Port St. Lucie called the train "a genuine threat to public health, safety and welfare" and a grass roots opposition group, Florida Not All Aboard, has an online petition signed by more than 14,000 people.

All Aboard Florida president Mike Reininger cited a "pocket" of opposition, and said the project enjoys "broad-based support" across the state and that its top priority is safety.

"The project has had overwhelming support across the state," Reininger said, "due to the economic impacts in job creation, increased tax revenues and alternative transportation options for a state exploding in population growth and visitor numbers year after year."

Acknowledging the opposition, Scott has urged All Aboard Florida officials to meet with residents and address their concerns about noise, safety and effects on property values and disruption of boat traffic. The company said it has held hundreds of such meetings.

"I'm hopeful that All Aboard will continue to get all those concerns addressed," Scott told the Times/Herald. "But I like people building things in our state, and I hope they're very successful."

Hundreds of people have bombarded Scott with emails urging him to halt the project, and for some, his response has only made things worse.

Anyone who complains to Scott about All Aboard Florida gets a canned email reply from his office that says "The state has no involvement in this railway."

That's not true, said Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari, a Republican and one of the project's leading critics.

"It's a false statement," Solari said. "It's an absolutely ridiculous statement."

"Your response is totally unacceptable," John and Sharon Prevedello of Stuart replied. "To claim no involvement … is completely irresponsible."

The budget Scott signed last week includes most of the $214 million All Aboard Florida needs for a passenger station at Orlando International Airport, a project Scott hailed as "the right thing for the state" at a ceremony in February. All Aboard Florida said it will pay market rents for its use.

The Scott-approved budget also has $10 million to help pay for "quiet zones," designed to reduce the need for trains to blast horns to alert motorists at railroad crossings.

All Aboard Florida, which has said it will invest $1 billion in the project, is also seeking a $1.5 billion taxpayer-backed federal loan. State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, cited the loan request as a source of controversy because it undercuts the idea that the project is funded privately.

"Opposition is overwhelming and growing," said Negron, who represents the area where opposition is strongest.

Negron said hundreds of constituents have asked his office for details on the eight upcoming public meetings All Aboard Florida has said it will hold about the project.

Company president Reininger said All Aboard Florida has not requested any state or federal grants or ongoing operating subsidies.

The company agreed to extend a public comment period from 45 days to 75 days after an environmental impact statement is released, and said it did so at Scott's request.

All Aboard Florida plans stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando, with trains cruising at up to 110 miles per hour. The project has won glowing support from leaders in Miami-Dade County and Miami.

The same low-rise development that people in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties like also means All Aboard's trains won't be stopping there any time soon: There aren't enough passengers.

For Scott, the All Aboard Florida project is politically delicate for another reason, too.

Scott's chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, used to work for a company owned by All Aboard Florida's corporate parent, Florida East Coast Industries. Before joining Scott's team in July 2012, Hollingsworth was chief executive of Parallel Infrastructure, an FECI unit that seeks to build cellphone towers along rail line rights of way.

After he became chief of staff, Hollingsworth agreed to a "firewall letter" that prevents him from participating "in any meetings or decisions" regarding his former employer. Hollingsworth declined to discuss the train project with the Times/Herald.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

 
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