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Panel: Little anyone can do about All Aboard Florida

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of June 12, 2014)

After seven public meetings in five months and lots of teeth-gnashing, the Vero Beach High-Speed Rail Commission has apparently concluded there’s little anyone can do to stop All-Aboard Florida from barreling 32 passenger trains a day through the city en route between Miami to Orlando at 110 miles an hour.

The best Vero can do to manage the negative impact of the new high-speed rail service, the commission says in its final report, is prepare for quiet zones and plead with the railroad to at least pay for needed safety upgrades to crossings.

Since the commission first met in January, its meetings have devolved from substantive presentations into a forum for the airing of public complaints, speculation and fears – often unsubstantiated – about the train's impact on the local community.

Last week’s meeting ran more than four hours, during which local residents rose to the podium to read lengthy printouts of internet research and relay anecdotal evidence about high-speed rail from living near or riding trains in the Northeast.

Previous meetings have attracted people who oppose the train for reasons ranging from noise and traffic concerns to the preservation of habitat for protected species, including gopher tortoises and one particular vision-impaired scrub jay that nests on one side of the tracks and feeds on the opposite side.

Overall, the commission’s report serves as a reality check: The train is apparently coming, whether Vero Beach citizens like it or not. “The city needs to prepare now to deal with the negative impact of the proposed train project,” the report states.

The report acknowledges all the anticipated woes, but also states, “The areas where the city can mitigate the negative impact of the All Aboard Florida project are limited.”

There was general consensus on the recommendations, with the lone dissenter being former Councilman Brian Heady, who wanted to adopt a stronger opposition stance.

But despite near-unanimity on how little the city can do, there was some controversy over the process of writing the report. Instead of settling upon a report in the live meeting, Chairman Ken Daige said he was going to sit down with City Clerk Tammy Vock to compile a report. Vice Chairman Don Croteau strongly objected, insisting that the commission openly discuss and settle upon recommendations in the public forum.

“I am trying to get a report that goes to the City Council that’s been voted on and vetted by this commission,” said Croteau. “Not by a chairman walking in and making his own recommendations.”

The majority of the commission came out in favor of quiet zones for crossings from Aviation Boulevard south to 16th Street, and of applying for some of a pot of $10 million in state funding to pay for them.

It also favored asking the railroad to reduce speed through the city to 60 miles per hour, despite research presented that showed increased speed does not necessarily decrease the safety of the train. The commission opposes public funding of what it sees as All Aboard Florida’s responsibilities by state grant, by $1.5 billion in federal loans or by expenditures by local governments up and down the coast to upgrade crossings.

Compiling the report was part of the commission’s charge. The city council had wanted to see a work product before the scheduled June 9 sunset date of the commission, but when the commission could not meet that deadline, the council agreed to allow them to present it at the June 17 council meeting.

The council also agreed the rail commission should stay in business through Dec. 1 in anticipation of a Federal Rail Administration Environmental Impact Study being released this summer and an expected public meeting about its findings.

The continued existence of the rail commission beyond the scheduled June sunset date has been seen by some political insiders as Daige’s effort to launch yet another bid for Vero Beach City Council this November.

He has used his position as chair to approach the podium on a regular basis to update the council on the group’s progress. Daige served one full term plus the second year of Charlie Wilson’s term on the council and his name is almost always on the ballot despite the fact that he often finishes dead last on election day.

“What Ken said at the onset, that he was going to get together with Mrs. Vock and come up with a report ... that’s the absolute wrong thing to do,” said Heady, also a perennial contender for city council. “That’s essentially what happened last time, and that’s why I felt it necessary to give the minority report.”

Earlier this year, Daige and Mayor Dick Winger penned a letter to legislators expressing what was billed as the city’s official opinion on the All Aboard Florida project and the first paragraph expressed support for the project. Heady protested the letter. Heady also opposed the commission’s six recommendations. “I voted against every single one of them,” Heady said after the meeting.

Heady also termed the Board of County Commissioners’ decision to spend more than $130,000 to hire attorneys to try to fight the train projecta waste of money. As was pointed out in the commission’s discussions, the railroad has been around more than 100 years and is an industry that enjoys a high level of federal protection and freedom to operate within the right-of-way of the rail corridor.

“Most of the problems were not concerns about the feasibility of the project. Most of the problems were that they just didn’t want it and they threw a thousand things at it from a one-eyed scrub jay to the property values to the traffic to it’s going too fast or it’s going too slow,” Heady said.

“And some of the people who came to the podium don’t like the people behind the project,” Heady said.

He also objected to discussions that went very far afield, straying into theories about increased freight train service to follow in All Aboard Florida’s wake after the tracks are improved.

“This is not the great rail commission study; this is the high-speed rail commission.

“We’re supposed to be commenting about All Aboard Florida, not about what Florida East Coast might be planning,” he concluded.