All Aboard Florida doesn't want to pay for safety, thinks it shouldn't have to. So it's fighting like a jackrabbit to get off on a technicality as the Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act reaches committees in both chambers.
It would be a travesty if this legislation doesn't make it to the Senate and House floors. Florida is the only state in the nation that has no law or regulation specifically governing high-speed rail safety.
The Senate has already had its first reading of the bill, CS/SB 386, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne. It passed Transporation unanimously.
Tuesday morning the House companion bill addressing high-speed rail gets its first look in the Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee. HB 269's sponsors are MaryLynn Magar, R-Hobe Sound, Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart and Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach.
Since the Senate committee meeting, Mike Reininger, executive director of Florida East Coast Industries, AAF's Coral Gables-based holding company, has been trying furiously to convince lawmakers that the bills' sponsors are nothing but a bunch of whining NIMBYs.
In a March 19 op-ed in The Sun-Sentinel, Reininger tries to disqualify the bill because "it is unconstitutional for a legislature to target a bill against a single company" and, he says, "Mayfield's bill attempts to place a thin veil over 'all railroads' ... that happen to look and act exactly like All Aboard Florida."
Claims Reininger, "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 Senate Bill 386 -- and had to catch herself to fall back to the more scripted 'any high-speed rail company.'"
This is a ridiculous argument. The bill clearly tries to set safety rules for all railroads. And, be honest, virtually every bill made law in Florida started with a specific problem somewhere, even with a particular industry or company, in which the "fix" would apply to all, somewhere down the line.
Reininger insists no bill is necessary because the railroad is making improvements that 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)."
But quiet zones require an even higher level of safety, because trains don’t blow their horns at crossings. And these passenger trains will hit speeds of 110 mph on the Treasure Coast. Pedestrian safety is a huge issue at many crossings, say Treasure Coast officials.
The bottom line here is, every step of the way, the Federal Railroad Administration’s High-Speed Rail Division has had to push Florida East Coast Industries and All Aboard Florida to elevate their safety standards and responsibilities to the communities they affect.
FRA Engineer Frank Frey said in a March 20, 2014 report shared with planning officials, “In my professional opinion, I respectfully disagree with the project’s approach in that they are not exercising appropriate safety practices and reasonable care when designing for high-speed passenger rail service.”
Many of the problems, say rail officials, have been cured since then. But it should remain a worry to all Floridians, I don't care where they live, that the state has no safety "rules of the (high-speed) rail" of their own. Said Frey, Florida Department of Transportation's safety standards for the rail lines are lower than FRA’s 2009 highway-rail grade crossing guidelines for high-speed passenger rail.
Incidentally, these trains aren't stopping to pick up a single passenger. No passenger service in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River or Brevard counties. No benefit for residents. No jobs, no rides.
This isn't NIMBYism, it's fighting an imposed loss of quality of living. Put the emphasis on imposed. Imposed by a private railroad.
What if you were told the use of the main street through your town was going to change. It suddenly was going to be a New Jersey Turnpike. A place where all the heavy trucks and 18-wheelers would travel. You didn't even get a Garden State Parkway for cars to take its place. All you got was a changed, more dangerous use through your town -- now, we'll prop it up, but you can't use it. You live with it and you pay to maintain it.
OK, not the best of analogies. But you can see what I'm talking about, and it's happening on the Treasure Coast.
And, as if 32 110-mph passenger trains a day aren't enough, the railroad is adding even more freight trains, some of which may carry hazardous materials along the Miami-Orlando and all-points-north route, increasing the risk of something going hideously wrong.
What I see here is just as I've said before -- we have an octopus of a company taking zero responsibility for the safety of hundreds of thousands of people along its rail line.
If high-speed rail is the success many believe, there will be more such rail lines, more such situations, more such accusations of NIMBYism, more communities in need of the Legislature's help.
Tuesday's meeting of the Florida House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee is set for 8-11 a.m. in 102 House Office Building (Reed Hall). The meeting will stream live on www.thefloridachannel.org.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith