June 01--WEST PALM BEACH -- It was more a gentlemanly disagreement than a debate. But the two sides of the All Aboard Florida controversy had their opportunity to make their cases once again Sunday morning on WPTV's "To the Point" program.
P. Michael Reininger, president and chief development officer of All Aboard Florida, and Richard Geisinger, president of the Martin County Taxpayers Association, put their best spin on the key elements of the continuing controversy.
For Reininger, the benefits of All Aboard Florida are clear: a massive infrastructure investment, upgraded crossing safety and an economic benefit to all Floridians, not just those in the counties where significant real estate projects already are being announced as part of station construction.
Geisinger stressed the damage that would be done to Treasure Coast communities and particularly to Martin County. He pointed to the high-profile concerns of the maritime community, the potential delays for emergency responders to cross the tracks and the impact 32 additional trains a day could have on property values.
Still, said Arnie Rosenberg -- TCPalm.com and Treasure Coast Newspapers reporter, who provided analysis on the program -- it's more than likely the $2.25 billion project will move ahead because it's not dependent on federal subsidies. Although All Aboard Florida is seeking a $1.5 billion federal loan, it needs no federal, state or local approvals to be built.
"In six months to a year from now, where will this be?" WPTV anchor and "To the Point" host Michael Williams asked.
"I think they will be breaking ground all along the corridor," Rosenberg said. "They unveiled (last) week a very impressive Miami station, with office towers and skyscrapers. I think they'll do the same in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm, and they will begin upgrading the tracks, putting in a second track all the way through the Treasure Coast, so that when it's completed, those trains will run through our communities without stopping.
"And that's where the people in the Treasure Coast don't see a tangible benefit."
All Aboard Florida -- a sister company of Florida East Coast Railway, which runs freight trains between Jacksonville and Miami -- plans its high-speed passenger trains to make the Miami-to-Orlando trip in three hours, hitting speeds up to 110 mph in rural areas north of Palm Beach County and up to 125 mph between Cocoa and Orlando International Airport.
Yet regardless of whether communities have stations, they'll benefit from All Aboard Florida, Reininger insisted.
"If you participate in the economy of Florida in any way ... you can't help but be benefitted by the literally thousands of jobs and billions of dollars that will be coming into it that will be directly related to the investment that's being made by a private company," Reininger said.
"What's unusual about this is that it's an infrastructure program being instituted with private-sector dollars," he said. "Almost always, infrastructure programs are the responsibility of the taxpaying public to shoulder the burden of that responsibility and, therefore, pay the freight, so to speak, with respect to the outcomes that you would like of these infrastructure systems."
Geisinger, though, stressed one of the core objections to All Aboard Florida that's been a rallying cry for opponents from the start.
"We have no problem with high-speed rail," he told Williams. "We think it's a good idea. We just don't think it should go down existing tracks and through little communities at high speed, or any speed, because of the difficulty it put on the community.
"The biggest concern ... is that you have a number of small communities that have worked very hard over the past 20 or 30 years to remain with a certain lifestyle, and to drive 32 more trains -- 16 going both ways -- is a tremendous increase of traffic" affecting safety, emergency vehicles and property values.
The two men strongly disagree on the impact on maritime traffic, specifically the possibility of extended, not to mention more frequent, closings of Stuart's single-track bridge over the St. Lucie River.
When Williams suggested that, between passenger and freight trains, the St. Lucie bridge and others might be "shut more often than not, or far more often than they are now" -- maybe as much as 45 minutes each hour -- Reininger was emphatic: "I don't think any of those things are true," he said. "The bridge certainly will not be closed more than it is open. It won't be closed 45 minutes in an hour."
The real answer to questions surrounding the bridge and other questions should be answered in the Federal Railroad Administration's Environmental Impact Statement. An FRA official last week told Treasure Coast Newspapers only that the report would be release "sometime this year," but refused to offer target dates.
What, Williams asked Rosenberg, could swing more support to All Aboard Florida's cause? Adding stations north of West Palm Beach, Rosenberg said, at least would remove one of the objections of Treasure Coast residents.
"But that's not going to happen, at least not initially," Rosenberg said. "Because as All Aboard Florida people have said, they call it their 'sweet spot' -- three hours from Miami to Orlando. They can't make stops and make that time."
Copyright 2014 - Treasure Coast Newspapers, Stuart, Fla.