It’s time we called out the “Rail Safety Bill” being sponsored by state Sen. Debbie Mayfield for what it is, the latest version of anti-growth NIMBYism to come out of the Treasure Coast. Only this time, in order to enact their strategy of roadblocks and nuisance challenges designed to delay and drive up the costs of All Aboard Florida (hoping to break the company) they are attempting to deceive legislators into choosing more cars and traffic over passenger rail alternatives for everyone in Florida.
It is unconstitutional for a legislature to target a bill against a single company, so Mayfield’s bill attempts to place a thin veil over “all railroads”…that happen to look and act EXACTLY like All Aboard Florida. The veil is so thin that while testifying recently to the Senate Transportation Committee, Mayfield repeatedly slipped and referred directly to All Aboard Florida when speaking about SB 386; and had to catch herself to fall back to the more scripted “any high-speed rail company.” The collateral damage of this bill for Florida will be no future for passenger rail within the State.
Florida doesn’t need to regulate passenger rail safety, the Federal Railroad Administration already does. SB 386 creates new regulation clearly preempted by federal law. An independent analysis by F.D.O.T. agrees. As a result of working through existing processes, AAF is constructing safety improvements to the railroad that has been operating on private property for over 120 years, making it fully compliant with all the latest and strictest regulations.
These improvements include Positive Train Control, vehicle detection, quad gates and other improvements to bring the railroad to “sealed corridor” status (and very likely to quiet zone status). No bill necessary. SB 386 will unlawfully add a new administrative and cost burdens that must be borne by taxpayers, even though federal agencies already have this responsibility. Treasure Coast Counties have been happy to spend millions on lawsuits to delay AAF. Now they will dig into state coffers to defend a losing hand in a constitutional law fight AAF will aggressively wage.
It’s really not about the money. Last year Martin and Indian River cspent $6 million on lawyers challenging AAF. They spent $930,000 on crossing maintenance. The TC Palm recently did a study of crossing costs for Martin, Saint Lucie and Indian River Counties for the years 2009-2014 and found they paid a cumulative total of $3.6 million in maintenance fees. During those same five years they said FECR paid those three counties $6.2 million in property taxes. Not only does the public get to use private property, the private company contributes more than it costs to maintain the public improvements. SB 386 is about killing AAF, and passenger rail in Florida dies alongside.
As AAF is being introduced, important improvements are being made to the infrastructure. Understanding that the financial burden of this work would be significant for taxpayers, AAF of its own accord offered to relieve the counties of their obligations for the capital improvements and fully fund the work itself. AAF asked the Counties to acknowledge their understanding that while AAF would take on this cost willingly, it wanted confirmation that the ongoing maintenance split would remain as it always has been. The public pays to maintain its road, the railroad pays to maintain its tracks.
In her recent testimony in the Senate, Mayfield misled her colleagues when asked if SB 386 would shift financial obligations from one party to another. She said it would not. That is not true. Between 1951 and 2005 Martin County sought permission to build roadways over the railroad 15 times. Permission was required because these roads cross private property (FECR and FECI share ownership of the corridor and infrastructure). Central to the agreements reached, the County pays for the cost to construct its roads and safety appliances that protect the public as they cross the railroad. It is not a private railroad crossing public land as was suggested by Mayfield. As these improvements need maintenance, the County must reimburse the railroad for the work done to keep the public roads safe and in good repair. SB 386 calls for the contractual obligations of the County be shifted to the private company that has granted the public permission to use its land, directly contradicting Mayfield’s representation. Simply put, the counties are trying to walk away from the obligations they have under deals they willingly sought.
The group behind the fight against a new privately funded transportation solution for Florida is called Citizens Against Rail Expansion (C.A.R.E.). It is not about safety, it is about NIMBYism, and if it has to mean “not in YOUR backyard” as well in order to further their charade, they are ok with that. They don’t C.A.R.E. Perhaps they chose that acronym because citizens for more cars and trucks and traffic congestion and environmental harm didn’t roll off the tongue.
Mike Reininger is executive director of Florida East Coast Industries, Inc.