Over the past several decades, many counties in South Florida have authorized expansions of urban development boundaries, towering building heights, increased density and construction of new roads to support surging growth. We acknowledge why the urbanized areas would be enthusiastic about a purported fast passenger train as a public transportation option to alleviate resulting traffic congestion and gridlock.
However, during the expansive growth era of South Florida, Martin County consistently has held the line on our urban services boundary; protected comprehensive planning policies; and otherwise managed our growth to maintain a slice of Florida in which people love to live, work and vacation.
Through the rail expansion process, Martin County’s goal has been to ensure that our safety needs and the unique environment we have protected for decades were properly addressed. We have exposed the use of taxpayer money to fund what All Aboard Florida (aka Brightline) calls a “self-financed” project. In return, we have been targeted as simple NIMBYs with no legitimate concerns.
To be clear, Martin County is unique. Within the Treasure Coast we have three coastal state parks along which All Aboard Florida proposes to run its 110 mph passenger and 70 mph freight trains. The train traffic through eastern Martin County will increase from the current 10-14 times a day to up to 52 times a day. These fast trains also will run through smaller, pedestrian-friendly communities and small business districts, not industrialized areas or areas sectioned off long ago for Tri-Rail use.
Also of great concern are the impacts from increased crossings over the 100-year-old St. Lucie River Railroad Bridge. It spans approximately 1,275 feet across the St. Lucie River, rising about 8-10 feet from the river. Only one train can cross at a time. The additional 38 times a train travels across the bridge means 38 additional bridge closures which would cause vehicular backups into downtown Stuart and delays for boaters. The closures will increase impacts to the marine industry, the health of the estuary and potentially the structural integrity of the antiquated bridge. Although All Aboard Florida will replace smaller bridges to accommodate the new intensity of its operations, it is not replacing or enhancing our bridge.
Furthermore, national rail safety expert George Gavalla found that no other passenger rail system in the U.S. combines 110 mph fast trains and 70 mph freight trains running on the same rail line through densely-populated urban and coastal recreation areas. Gavalla observed that risk factors leading to deadly railroad accidents and derailments rise dramatically with significant increases in train speeds and as with All Aboard Florida, the quadrupling of the number of trains in operation.
To make matters more confounding, the railroad owner is requiring the counties to pay for safety upgrades that will enable All Aboard Florida’s higher speeds and increased traffic. These costs to taxpayers will rise from less than $200,000 currently in Martin County to more than $13 million in 2030 and exceeding $31 million by 2040.
But all is not lost. Martin County has urged All Aboard Florida and the regulators to consider alternative routes to reduce and minimize the impacts to the eastern portions of Martin County. Such alternatives would avoid the bridge and dramatically reduce the future costs to the taxpayers.
We give kudos to local governments for efforts to curb consequences of sprawl and dense growth. In Martin County, we continue our principled fight to advocate for the safety of our citizens and our visitors, and to protect the unique environment we call home.