FL: Critics Deride Planned All Aboard Florida Train

June 24--All Aboard Florida officials won praise throughout the state when they announced plans two years ago to build a passenger-train network that would link Orlando with Miami. But now, critics want to slow or stop the project.

They contend the $2.5 billion operation that could start carrying passengers in late 2016 could harm the quality of life in towns along its path, serve as a front for gambling interests and suck up tax dollars for private gain.

Gov. Rick Scott -- one of the project's biggest supporters -- has asked train backers to slow down the process by at least two weeks to allow for more public input.

"As I have traveled the state, I have heard from many Florida families who are concerned about the increased rail traffic and how it will impact their communities," Scott recently wrote to All Aboard Florida and the Federal Railroad Administration.

All Aboard Florida is seeking a $1.5 billion low-interest loan from the FRA, which is reviewing the request and accepting public comments about the undertaking. A FRA spokesman declined further comment.

Mike Renninger, the president of All Aboard Florida, said he is fine with a delay and understands Scott's seeming reluctance to push forward.

"Nothing we're not ready, willing and able to do," he said of the possible postponement.

The complaints mounting against the train, Renninger said, are largely "based on misunderstandings or misrepresentations of the project."

Counties along the so-called Treasure Coast, including Brevard, Martin and Indian River, oppose All Aboard Florida because they do not have stops. They also fear the 32 passenger trains with as many as 10 cars apiece that would run daily would back up roads and drawbridges. Fewer than a dozen freight trains typically use the tracks that roughly parallel Interstate 95.

A group called Florida Not All Aboard has a website dedicated to fighting the train that has gathered more than 17,000 signatures. It alleges the train will, among other charges, delay emergency vehicles and lead to a "decay of paradise."

Renninger contends such traffic worries are overblown because the trains typically will pass through an intersection in less than a minute. There are close to 360 intersections along the route, almost all of them along the East Coast.

"The fear," Renninger said, "is not founded in the realities of the situation."

State Rep. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, is peeved because All Aboard Florida, a private company, is seeking the loan from the federal government and also would benefit from a more than $660 million expenditure of tax money at Orlando International Airport, which would be the northern terminus of the train.

Orlando International has secured a pledge of $214 million from Scott to build a multi-modal center that would house All Aboard Florida trains, plus other systems. All Aboard Florida would pay $2.8 million annually to rent its space, plus $1.50 per passenger who leaves Orlando.

The airport also intends to spend $450 million on a tram that would link the center with the main terminal to the north, a 2,400-space garage, plus related highway and utility improvements. In addition to All Aboard Florida, that work also would serve a planned second terminal costing more than $1 billion that could be built nearby if airport traffic grows.

In a release from the state, Scott said the airport-All Aboard Florida deal was "another example of how our economic policies work to create private sector jobs for Florida families and develop the best transportation and infrastructure systems in the country."

But Stewart sees the arrangement as "a lot of money and I think All Aboard folks are going to make out in the long run."

Stewart also is worried the train could suck tourists away from Central Florida attractions to South Florida, where a major casino is planned for downtown Miami.

By law, only the Seminole Tribe and some dog tracks can operate casinos. But the Malaysian gaming company Genting has been pushing -- unsuccessfully so far -- to open a major casino complex on the former waterfront site of the Miami Herald.

Orlando International officials harbored similar fears about gaming and persuaded All Aboard Florida representatives to sign an agreement saying they would not feature gambling advertising on their trains or allow games of chance in the cars.

"We have no affiliation with gambling whatsoever," Renninger said. "Gambling is no factor in our business planning at all."

All Aboard Florida, however, is owned by Fortress Investment Group, a large publicly held conglomerate. Among its holdings is Penn National Gaming, a Pennsylvania company that runs casinos and racetracks in 18 states and Canada, including the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club.

Renninger said Penn National Gaming has nothing to do with All Aboard Florida.

The ultimate success of the train system, he said, relies on carrying fare-paying passengers and developing everything from apartments, office space to retail shops and restaurants around the planned station sites in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

"They feed each other," he said of the development-transportation setup.

dltracy@tribune.com or 407-420-5444

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