April 28, 2008

My reasons for opposing the CSX rail boondoggle

This is my response to a supporter of the CSX rail deal that is grinding its way through the Florida legislature:

Gene, as I have stated previously, I favor commuter rail - when and if someone comes up with a plan that passes the smell test. The one being ramrodded through the Florida legislature is a scheme designed to alleviate Orlando's rail problems and dump them on other, less politically influential, communities. Anyone familiar with the Orlando area knows that trains and the accompanying traffic issues there have been a source of irritation for decades. The city has long sought a way to rid rid itself of a major problem. It now has one. See 2005 state study cited freight traffic headaches

This rail deal does not represent progress. Your analysis - basically that rail is more efficient than autos, so "build it and they will ride" - misses the destination by a mile. You cannot predict ridership, so you cannot possibly have a meaningful formula to determine if and when fuel efficiency goals for this particular commuter rail project would ever be met - and at what additional costs above the millions already bandied about. See Does rail transit save energy or reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

As for freight rail efficiency, the deal does nothing. It does not take freight off trucks and move it onto rail, it simply takes trains that are already running and diverts them through communities like Lakeland and Ocala, towns which have used better judgment in making growth management decisions than has the city of Orlando.

You are correct on this point: CSX "currently has no liability for commuter rail." But of course. Please read Sweet deal with CSX may violate state constitution

You may care about the environment, but so do those opposing the CSX deal. Do you have any idea of how this deal in its entirety would eventually impact the environment of communities outside Orlando? If so, you must be way ahead of the people who attempted to bypass regional impact studies - studies that, now that they have finally begun, have not concluded even for the first 319-acre phase of development of "the mother of all rail yards" in Winter Haven. Not to mention the second 931-acre part of the plan. I don't have to tell you why the dealmakers, acting in secret and avoiding public hearings, divided the CSX project into two parts. Hint: To avoid scrutiny, i.e., Florida sunshine, perhaps? Even today, Jeb Bush refuses to answer questions on another of his "devious plans," and Charlie Crist has no interest in hearing from members of my community. (Tours with John and evenings with George are much more fun for "the people's guv'na.")

Yes, a few local politicians and developers support the rail hub in Winter Haven. It's also true that many of those fighting the hardest for the deal will benefit financially and/or politically from the "financial aid" package.

My personal interest

Most people take pride in their homes and community. I will support Orlando's efforts to improve life in their city, but not their right to disrupt the lives of people several miles away. The rail proposal goes well beyond dumping trash in my backyard. Noise pollution, safety concerns and deteriorated quality of life will extend directly into my living room. For politicians, or anyone else, to behave as if I should have no say in the matter - and that is exactly what has happened - is insulting almost beyond words.

The impact of this deal on me, personally, reflects that of countless others - perhaps more people than the eventual ridership of the Orlando train, should the legislative boondoggle be allowed to succeed. I live in a historic part of Lakeland, near Lake Morton and Florida Southern College (see map of Main St. and CSX rail line). I have worked all my life to pay for the home in which I had intended to live out my life in peace. Police and major medical facilities are located on the north side of town, across the railroad tracks from the majority of Lakeland residents. A quarter of a million people are served. Watson Clinic, for example, has more than 200 providers offering 38 specialties, and the Lakeland Regional Medical Center's emergency room is the second busiest in the state.

If the politicians, the developers and CSX get their way, I will, through no fault of my own decisions, live in a city split in two by tracks carrying dozens of freight trains (up to 56 trips daily) of unknown length running hour after hour, day and night, with constant rumbles and whistles that disrupt sleep, work, commerce, traffic flow through downtown and emergency services. Road conditions and highway safety will be impacted by greatly increased truck traffic flowing from the mother of all rail hubs in Winter Haven. No one supporting the rail-and-hub deal can give exact answers to either the increased rail or truck traffic. In light of past deceptions, projections made by CSX would not be credible anyway. If I choose to sell my home, its value will likely have plummeted. So, use whatever logic works for you to support the rail deal, but don't use my own tax dollars to diminish my quality of life. Don't pretend that it's a wonderful thing for mankind. Don't piss on my boot and tell me it's raining.

Those who live in greater Orlando do so for their own reasons. They understood the problems when they made the decision to live and work there. Freight trains and rail yards did not spring up near their homes overnight. For decades, new residents of Orlando saw the conditions, weighed the lifestyle opportunities against the problems, and made their choice. I chose a different community for my own reasons - to avoid the problems of a city like Orlando - and I resent being dumped on by morally bankrupt politicians who have no interest in fairness or in protecting my community. For a temporary, largely political fix, or for whatever other reasons they may employ to hoodwink the public, a group of powerful politicians are, with no integrity and little regard for anyone's interests outside their own, breaking arms to pass a deal that is contrary to the well-being of several communities, to the state of Florida and to good government itself.

Is my city considered a wasteland, made useful only by absorbing a major problem of a larger city? Am I to pay for Orlando's continued, unfettered "development"? The threat to my community is real. Promises of future amelioration are absent from today's discussion. In fact, there are no serious discussions of even having meaningful discussions, so help is not on the way. Once done, the damage will never be undone. Once done, the politicians will focus on a thousand priorities (or the the priorities of their corporate sponsors) that rank above fixing the mess they created.

If the deal were as beneficial to the state as supporters suggest, if it were for "the greater good," please explain the secrecy, the lack of comprehensive studies and optional plans, and a total disregard for the communities most negatively impacted. Florida taxpayers, many within the Orlando area itself, who have taken the time to study the issue do not want their tax dollars taken from education, health care and other pressing needs and used for a CSX deal to "get people out of their cars."

Beyond the obvious

I won't belabor the obvious, since over several weeks I have documented the points I am making. With the exception of CSX stockholders, who were treated to a 46% profit increase last quarter, it's a bad deal for most Florida taxpayers - even environmentalists - who live outside the immediate commuter route being proposed.

Here are two points that the citizens of Florida need to know:

1 - The Port of Manatee is gearing up for the expansion of the Panama Canal. That will allow increased freight from the US west coast and Asia to flow through Florida to the entire eastern United States. That's where the Winter Haven "mother of all rail yards" fits into the long-range regional planning:

    "Primarily at the beginning it will feed the consumer demand of the state of Florida for goods coming from the West Coast ports," Hood said. "As the growth of the Southeast ports happens, like at Port Manatee, Tampa and Jacksonville, there's an opportunity to feed this as a distribution point for goods to the Midwest and the northern part of the country. If something comes in to the Port of Manatee and the destination is Ohio or Indianapolis, the containers could be sent to those destinations and beyond."

    "It's one more important tool that we have to market the port," said Steve Tyndal, Port Manatee's senior director of trade development and special projects. "If a shipper in Asia knows that a sophisticated intermodal facility like the one proposed for Winter Haven is only an hour away, that means we could more easily sell Port Manatee as a port of entry.

    "Port Manatee is already well served by CSX but the new facility in Winter Haven will help drive capacity, specifically for containerized cargo," Tyndal said. "And that's important because the Panama Canal is expanding and the port is taking a proactive measure now to be ready for when that happens." - Bradenton Herald, Sept. 20, 2007, Port hopes rail brings growth

2 - The CSX-Orlando deal is likely to delay, probably for my lifetime, commuter rail between Tampa Bay and Orlando. The fifty-six freight trains projected for CSX's S-1 line would eliminate the prospect of using those tracks for commuter rail, and the state is unwilling to invest in high-speed rail. Travel by automobile will worsen from the hundreds of additional trucks cruising to and from the Winter Haven hub, and all along the I-4 corridor from Tampa to Orlando.

That's one of the reasons the editors of the Tampa Tribune, as well as editors of other newspapers across the state, have condemned this mother of all corrupt deals, so putrid it was hatched and nurtured in the dead of night and hidden from the public for as long as humanly possible. See Secret deal for railroad hub lays bare shady practices at DOT

For these reasons and others I have made before in this blog, I will do whatever is possible to derail a deal that should never have seen the light of day - especially at a time when, in the words of Speaker Rubio, our state faces "the worst government budget conditions in Florida's history."

A note on the governor's 'leadership' . . . .

When pressed to comment on the CSX rail issue, Gov. Crist responded Monday with a boxcar full of evasions: "not necessarily," "it depends," looks "forward to reviewing it," depends on "what the purpose is and what the rationale would be," "kind of factor all those things," "will factor and weigh and make a responsible decision."

Thanks, governor. How reassuring.

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