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Supporters, foes line up on rail financing plan


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 20, 2015.......... A private passenger-rail venture got the endorsement of one of the state's most-powerful business lobbying groups Monday in seeking $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds.

Meanwhile, a quartet of legislators from the region most opposed to All Aboard Florida's Miami-to-Orlando rail project questioned if the state will eventually have to subsidize the service, which is proposing 32 trains a day in 2017.

"What happens if the project fails, who is left holding the bag?" asked Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, during the Florida Development Financial Corp.'s four-hour hearing on the bond request.

Mark Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said the project will become an economic engine across Florida and is needed to avoid the "growing highway gridlock" expected as the state continues its growth.

Wilson added that support for the "once-in-a-generation opportunity for Florida" extends beyond South and Central Florida, with officials in Tampa and Jacksonville waiting to be connected to the passenger line.

All Aboard Florida has requested the private-activity bonds to fund construction and rail improvements in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Brevard and Orange counties, which are in support of the project.

Stations are planned in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando.

Brevard County is undertaking a study to determine where a station could eventually be located.

The bond application doesn't include work that is needed along the tracks in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian counties, where no stops are currently planned and opposition to the passenger service is strongest.

Residents from Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties and northern Palm Beach County contend the passenger trains will delay emergency rescue services, increase noise and decrease property values, while dangerously mixing passenger cars with freight on lines that run through a number of east-coast downtowns.

"If they approve the bonds, it's quite clear this is going to go to court," said Jupiter resident Brent Hanlon, treasurer of CARE-Florida, Citizens Against Rail Expansion.

Florida East Coast Railroad, All Aboard Florida's parent company, is expected to pay for rail work along the Treasure Coast, estimated at nearly $400 million.

Florida Development Finance Corp. Executive Director Bill Spivey said All Aboard Florida still has paperwork to submit, but a decision is expected by the board before July 1.

Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, and Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, said a failure of All Aboard Florida could hurt Florida's credit rating. They also expressed disappointment that Florida Development Financial Corp. board members, including three recently appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, didn't attend the hearing.

Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, said the state and federal government should consider running the rail lines along Interstate 95 and Florida's Turnpike.

"I think we should use the vision that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had when he created the interstate system," Lee said.

Officials from Indian River and Martin counties noted they are already pursuing lawsuits to block the passenger service.

However, the meeting was dominated by business and government representatives behind the project.

The project has support from Universal Studios and the Orlando Magic. Lobbyist Ron Book, representing county and local governments in Brevard, Miami-Dade and Broward counties, called the project "a ticket for the future."

Magar questioned how the board could make a decision when the company hasn't released financial data, including proposed ticket prices.

"It is still unclear to me and all involved how FDFC could move forward when we haven't seen ridership data," Magar said.

All Aboard Florida President Michael Reininger, attending the hearing, said tickets for the 3½-hour Miami-to-Orlando run should be comparable to the cost of driving a car yet lower than an airline flight. Ticket prices will also be flexible to fill trains depending upon the time of day and year, he said.