BY DEIRDRA FUNCHEONWEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2015 Broward/Palm Beach New Times
On Monday, representatives from All Aboard Florida — the private company that plans to run 32 passenger trains a day between Miami and Orlando — released pictures of what the trains will look like and announced that the project would be known by a new name: the Brightline.
This came as exciting news for South Florida residents who love the idea of leaving their cars at the station while they catch a ride to Disney World or who imagine international tourists flying into Orlando and speeding down to Fort Lauderdale for a cruise. Publications from the Sun Sentinel to USA Today ran fawning stories.
But critics remained unmoved.
K.C. Ingram Traylor, director of a citizens’ group called Florida Not All Aboard, said, “Changing the name to Brightline and presenting pretty pictures will not fool anyone. All Aboard Florida is simply not a bright deal — or a bright idea.”
All Aboard Florida has said it will add 16 round-trip passenger trains per day on the existing railroad tracks owned by All Aboard’s sister company, the Florida East Coast Railway. Trains, which would begin operating in 2017, will stop in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale — where stations are already being built. The trains are not considered high-speed rail but would go up to 125 mph. A trip from Miami to Orlando would take about three hours.
Ticket prices have yet to be determined. A study commissioned by All Aboard Florida has said they could be as low as $11 or as high as $143 each way, but a competing study by Citizens Against Rail Expansion said the company would have to charge $273 for a one-way fare to pay its debts.
Critics point out numerous concerns: So many trains will create an unprecedented noise increase. They will impede traffic — and emergency vehicles — at crossings. And who the heck would ride this thing? Especially when it takes the same amount to time to drive, with a car full of people, for the cost of a tank of gas — not to mention that Amtrak already provides a Miami-to-Orlando route for about $44 each way.
“No one believes they’ll have the ridership to fill 32 passenger trains a day,” says Ingram Traylor. The whole thing, she says, is “a risky boondoggle.” She suspects the project is a red herring —- a precursor to adding more freight trains and/or a ploy to spur real estate development around the spots where train stations are planned.
In Broward County, a major sticking point is conflict with the powerful boating industry. A portion of the train track sits on a drawbridge that goes across the New River near Riverwalk. Currently, the drawbridge stays up most of the day and gets lowered just a few times a day for trains, letting boats pass freely. But Brightline’s additional train traffic would require the bridge to be down for much of the day and create backups for boats passing through the river. Critics along the Treasure Coast are concerned about similar bridge crossings in Martin and Indian River counties, where the trains won’t even stop to allow passengers on.
John Dotto, a Fort Lauderdale resident who owns a house on the New River and a boat, said, “We have about 18 major [road crossings with trains] in Fort Lauderdale alone. Today we have approximately 14 freight trains a day.” Half of those, he says, pass through town during daylight hours — an inconvenience that stalls traffic about six minutes when it passes. Add Brightline’s 32 trains to the seven that pass in the day and you have 39 trains that would create a traffic headache.
Dotto points out that the Lauderdale Marine Center is one of the biggest boatyards in America and can only be accessed by the New River. Already, its boat traffic is stalled when the railroad bridge goes down; 32 additional lowerings would be significant.
All Aboard Florida has said that it is working with the marine industry to upgrade bridges and speed the openings and closings.
But there’s still the cost. All Aboard Florida sought a loan from the government, then decided it would finance the project by selling bonds to investors. All Aboard’s parent company, Fortress Investment Group, got the go-ahead from the Florida Development Finance Corp. — a state agency that issues the bonds — to sell the bonds as tax-free. The bonds would be backed by All Aboard Florida. The company, not any city or state, would be responsible for repaying investors when the bonds mature.
Ingram Traylor pointed out that in the spring, several investment bankers said they wouldn’t be interested in the bonds because they’re considered high-risk and not likely to be profitable.
Dan Heckman, of U.S. Bank Wealth Management, told Bloomberg News, “This is a very high-risk project. I would question whether they would get the kind of ridership they may need quickly enough to make it work.” Marilyn Cohen, president of Envision Capital Management in California, said, “The fact that they’re trying to offload their risk to investors is very telling. This isn’t something I would recommend for my clients.”
An auction was supposed to take place this week, but Cohen told New Times it has been pushed back.
According to Ingraham Traylor, Florida Not All Aboard will be watching “who will be purchasing [the bonds] and whether they’ll even be able to sell close to the $1.75 billion they’re seeking. Again, they are unrated high-risk bonds.” Or as the Sun Sentinel’s Mike Mayo called them in August: “junk bonds.”
Ingraham Traylor points out that 58,000 people have signed petitions opposing the train and that Indian River and Martin counties have filed lawsuits against the federal Department of Transportation and the Florida Development Finance Corp. Congressman Patrick Murphy opposes the project.
There’s still hope for stopping it, say Ingraham Traylor. “We know that AAF is still not a done deal. All the Treasure Coast counties are greatly opposed to this project, and we’re still opposed to this project 100 percent.”
John Dotto thinks the train project is a bait-and-switch and that Fortress is using the guise of passenger rail to obtain funding it wouldn’t be able to get for moving freight. He points out that a major expansion of the Panama Canal will be ready in about 18 months and allow massive container ships to pass through —- ships that in turn will want to unload their cargo onto trains in Florida. There’s also a new canal being built through Nicaragua. “AAF,” says Dotto ominously, “means all All About Freight.”