Florida's New Regional Rail Service Raises Residents' Concerns

Florida East Coast Railway plans to start construction on an passenger line linking Miami with Orlando. Residents in towns through which the train passes worry about the impact on their communities

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In Florida, plans are in place to start construction soon on an express passenger line linking Miami with Orlando. The new rail line is being built by a private company - no taxpayer money is involved - and it's a cause for celebration in the big urban areas on both ends. But in the middle, the towns where the trains will pass through, there is concern about the negatives. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen has the story.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The rail new service is called All Aboard Florida. Using mostly existing track, the company says it will run 16 trains a day, each way, between Miami and Orlando. At a news conference to unveil plans for a station in downtown Miami, mayor Tomas Regalado was ecstatic.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MAYOR TOMAS REGALADO: This will be a game changer.

ALLEN: The train promises to do something long envisioned, connect the heavily populated South with fast-growing Central Florida. Florida East Coast Railway was founded more than 100 years ago by one of the state's first developers Henry Flagler, whose railroad ran from Jackson to Key West. Since the late '60s, the railroad has just carried freight. The CEO Vincent Signorello says in returning to passenger rail the old Flagler railroad is, once again, making history.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

VINCENT SIGNORELLO: This will be the first time a private company in the United States has developed an intercity passenger rail service in more than a century.

ALLEN: For people in Orlando and South Florida, it's a double win - a passenger rail connection that will provide jobs, transportation and an economic boost and doesn't rely on taxpayers. But communities in between South Florida and Orlando see the new passenger line differently.

MAYOR ABBY BRENNAN: It would have a very significant impact on public safety - that is our biggest concern.

ALLEN: Abby Brennan the is the mayor of Tequesta, a village about 20 miles north of the closest proposed rail station in West Palm Beach. The trail and cuts the town in half. Residence and the town police and fire crews have to cross the tracks to get to stores, schools and the local hospital. Brennan says he constituents are worried about the increased train traffic.

BRENNAN: Currently, we have 14 freight trains are running. We are looking at the possibility of another 32 fast trains, and we are pretty sure that there will be an increase in freight.

ALLEN: Some 500 people concerned about the trains' impact jammed into a Baptist Church in Tequesta recently. Jim Sprankel is a golf course superintendent.

JIM SPRANKEL: I commute across the tracks two or three times a day. My children go to school over the tracks. Everything we do we have to cross the tracks.

ALLEN: Because All Aboard Florida is a private venture, it's been slow to release details. Their suspicion here that the passenger service is cover for another goal - to improve tracks along the old rail line to accommodate increased freight traffic. Jim Sprankel.

SPRANKEL: We don't know much about exactly the traffic - the amount of cars they're going to have.

ALLEN: They're saying 32 trains a day, is that...

SPRANKEL: Yeah, that's - how do you fill the seats? I don't know. We have Amtrak system in place, and they can't fill the seats.

ALLEN: In Tequesta, there are three roads that cross the train tracks, but here in the north end of town is what people are most concerned about. It's a train drawbridge over the Loxahatchee River. It's old, rusty and when it malfunctions, Mayor Brennan says it brings the town to a standstill.

BRENNAN: When it can't lock down for a train to go over, one freight train can block all three, and the only exits, to the east.

ALLEN: Have you seen that in the past?

BRENNAN: It happened two months ago, and it was over two hours.

ALLEN: The concerns voiced here, and in other communities along Florida's east coast, prompted Florida governor Rick Scott, recently, to step in. He's calling on the company to meet with residents and share with them their plans for bridge crossings including the one over the Loxahatchee. The company says some of the concerns and communities along the coast are the result of misinformation. All Aboard Florida president, Michael Reininger says he's

confident that even towns without stations with see economic benefits from the new train line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL REININGER: The population of this state grew up immediately along and because of the infrastructure backbone that was represented by that railroad so has, in no small part, been responsible for Florida as it exists today.

ALLEN: All Aboard Florida plans to begin construction soon and starts operating trains in 2016. As the project moves forward, communities like Tequesta are being reminded of a simple but important piece of Florida history - the train was here first. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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