For it until they were against it

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, September 5, 2014

Carl Hiaasen is a great comic novelist. I've read them all. His books (Sick Puppy, Lucky You, Basket Case, Strip Tease, among others) poke fun at the inanities of people in his native Florida — their petty crimes, feckless behavior, outrageous acts, crazy blowups and so on and so forth until you are rolling on the floor. But now it seems as if in real life, Carl Hiaasen is a character in what could be one of his own books.

In 2012, when Florida East Coast Industries announced All Aboard Florida, a private, unsubsidized passenger train service between Miami and Orlando over tracks of the affiliated Florida East Coast Railway, sunshine rained down. Politicians knocked each other over in their rush to voice support, Governor Rick Scott chief among them (he the same one who turned down a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando that the federal government offered to pay for entirely). Newspaper editorialists waxed eloquent. Everybody loved All Aboard Florida.

That was then. But you know Florida. They do crazy things in Florida. Now the state appears to be rising up in righteous anger that Big Rail will run its big, loud, noisy, ground-shaking, trespasser-striking passenger trains through the quiet, pristine communities that dot the Atlantic coast of our Sunshine State. The politicians are again knocking each other over, this time in their rush to a microphone to denounce All Aboard Florida. And look! There he is, in the vanguard, Carl Hiaasen himself!

Carl, you see, when not writing funny books about outrageous Floridians, is an outraged Floridian. He writes a column in the Miami Herald. And he turns his pen into a mighty sword to smite All Aboard Florida. “The whole project is anchored on the dubious notion that millions of people can’t wait to hop a train from Miami to the Orlando Airport (via Cocoa),” he writes. “Its web site sunnily predicts that three out of four passengers will be tourists. Tourists who are what . . . afraid to fly? Too scared to drive? Talk about a narrow market.” He predicts AAF will come crashing down and ends his column: “All aboard, suckers.”

Carl is only one actor in this reality show, although arguably the most handsome one. There’s Governor Scott, a Republican, and his opponent in November’s election, former governor and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. Earlier this year, once-friendly Scott sent a testy letter to All Aboard Florida that declared: “There will be no state subsidies for this project,” although AAF had never asked for any. He also demanded that AAF pay for its part of the intermodal facility at the Orlando airport. As for Crist, here’s what he told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel: “This All Aboard Florida thing: I’m not going to denounce it, but I have serious concerns about the whole thing. . . It seems like a lot of people on the East Coast aren’t real interested and aren’t all aboard.” So is Crist for it or against it, the newspaper asked? “I have serious concerns about it. I haven’t reached a final conclusion.”

With friends like Rick Scott and Charlie Crist, All Aboard Florida doesn’t need enemies. Yet it now has them, in abundance. Almost every municipality on the AAF route other than the four where trains will stop has run crying to the governor, the Federal Railroad Administration (which is doing an environmental impact study, or EIS, of the project) or members of Congress. What do they want? They all want quiet zones to end whistling at road crossings (they’ll get them). The town of Jupiter wants the Tri-Rail commuter trains extended on FEC rails to its community from West Palm Beach. The City of Sebastian requests state assistance for businesses that lose revenue from tourists who pass through by train rather than drop in for gasoline and food. Most governments want Florida East Coast freight trains either moved to CSX Transportation tracks or run entirely at night. A Florida East Coast subsidiary plans to lay fiber-optic cable alongside the railroad, so the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council wants governments to get free or reduced-rate internet spectrum. On and on go the laundry lists.

Meanwhile, at the personal level, it’s as if body snatchers have invaded, because people are going crazy, all but rending their garments in alarm. Whole web sites are devoted to fighting All Aboard Florida. One of them, FloridaNOTAllAboard.com, claims to have collected almost 28,000 signatures (real and electronic) opposing the trains. A Stop Big Choo Choo rally in Stuart attracted almost 1,000 people. A poll by Stuart’s daily newspaper on whether readers think the passenger trains will ever run attracted almost three times as many “no” votes as “yes.”

And to what end? The Surface Transportation Board has already said that as an intrastate business, All Aboard Florida doesn’t need its licensing. Kim Delaney, strategic development coordinator for the Treasure Coast planning council, tells me that nothing really stands in All Aboard Florida’s way except for its pending application to FRA for a low-interest-rate loan of $1.6 billion. The loan application necessitated the EIS, which was to be made public in January but remains shrouded in secrecy. Would the environmental study demand mitigating actions by All Aboard Florida? That’s the only lever left to opponents of the passenger trains. And if it does, AAF can always decide to finance the whole thing by itself. Then it can ignore everyone — Carl Hiaasen, Governor Scott, would-be Governor Crist, all the mayors and city councils on its route and every frothing-at-the-mouth citizen — and  just start running the damn trains.

We can all agree: It would make a terrific Carl Hiaasen novel. — Fred W. Frailey

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