July 15, 2014
Florida All Aboard, a proposed high-speed passenger rail service between Miami and Orlando, has emerged as an important issue in District 82. Florida All Aboard is a private company controlled by the New York City-based Fortress Investment Group hedge fund. They plan to run 32 passenger trains a day on the FEC tracks that cut through our area. Mary has issued a statement on this project. The statement was initially posted on the website of Florida NOT All Aboard, a grassroots group that sprung up in Martin County as details of Florida All Aboard's plan started coming to light. Mary's statement:
I am running to represent District 82 in the Florida House of Representatives. District 82 includes most of Martin County south of Stuart as well as the northwest portion of Palm Beach County including all of Tequesta and most of Jupiter. The Loxahatchee trestle bridge is located in District 82 and the district also includes a significant part of Palm City that would be adversely affected by increased train traffic over the St. Lucie drawbridge
I am opposed to the All Aboard Florida project as it has been presented. I am not against high-speed rail in general- but this is not high-speed rail. The closest thing to high-speed rail in this country is the Acela service in the Northeast Corridor. That service has only 11 grade crossings over 453 miles and none at all in the popular New York to Washington D.C. portion of the route. All Aboard Florida's proposed service, by contrast, has 314 grade crossings in the 195 mile stretch from Miami to Cocoa Beach. For this reason alone, the project should be scrapped. These trains will create delays for both normal traffic and emergency vehicles at the crossings. 32 additional fast trains daily will surely lead to more and deadlier accidents. Increased use of the drawbridges will disrupt marine traffic. Property taxes will go up to help pay for quiet zones and property values will go down together with our quality of life. I see no offsetting benefits at all for us.
I also oppose the plan because I think it is deliberately misleading. All Aboard Florida has not made important details of their business plan public and I am not convinced that they actually have a viable plan. No other rail company in the country is able to profitably operate a passenger line and the purposefully vague assurances offered by All Aboard Florida only invite scepticism. One detail the company has not been able to suppress is their application for $1.5 billion in RRIF loans. RRIF loans offer much more favourable terms than other sources of financing. The RRIF loans would be used to, among other things, double-track most of the FEC right of way. Related companies, including the freight carrier FECR, would benefit from the upgraded infrastructure whether All Aboard Florida succeeds or not.
Fortunately, the federal loan application has also triggered an environmental review. The Federal Railroad Administration will release a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for this project in the Spring and citizens and local governments will have the opportunity to comment. The final EIS, which will be issued later, is supposed to address the concerns we raise during the public comment period. I urge everyone to participate in this process and make themselves heard- loudly and clearly. The final EIS may lead to a No Action recommendation or other alternative that effectively halts the project.
One valuable result of the discussion to date is the expanding awareness that, whether All Aboard Florida gets off the ground or not, South Florida is going to see a significant increase in freight traffic coming through the expanded Panama Canal and upgraded ports, especially the Port of Miami and Port Everglades. A lot of the increased freight traffic is currently projected to travel up the coast on the FEC tracks and would have the same devastating impacts, or worse, as All Aboard Florida. The other train problem we need to confront is "All About Freight." We should encourage "freight rationalization"- which in this case probably means sending more freight traffic over the western (CSX) tracks that travel through less populous areas.
Florida's state government has promoted All Aboard Florida's plan by buying land for a right of way and leasing it to the company. The state also budgeted $215 million to help construct an inter-modal facility at Orlando International Airport that would directly benefit All Aboard Florida. I will not support any legislation or appropriation that subsidizes All Aboard Florida.
I will also seek to promote freight rationalization. Florida has made substantial investments in upgrading our ports to handle additional freight arriving in post-Panamax container ships via the newly expanded Panama Canal. The state now needs to invest in measures to mitigate the adverse impacts of that increased freight traffic.
SOME IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT ALL ABOARD FLORIDA
- The service would use the existing FEC tracks that run through the densely populated coastal area of South Florida. It requires construction of 40 miles of track on the State's newly acquired right of way between Cocoa Beach and Orlando. While an additional track would be added on most of the route, the exception is the railroad bridge in Stuart over the St. Lucie River. This choke point will cause additional delays in Martin County.
- The service is supposed to make the trip in less than 3 hours to compete with air travel. The only intermediate stops will be in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
- No self-sustaining intercity passenger rail system, public or private, has operated in the United States since the failure of the Penn Central and the formation of Amtrak in the early 1970's.
- All Aboard Florida has applied for a $1.6 billion Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan. From the Federal Railroad Administration's website: "Direct loans can fund up to 100% of a railroad project with repayment periods of up to 35 years and interest rates equal to the cost of borrowing to the government." All Aboard Florida recently sold $405 million worth of 5-year bonds based on their own creditworthiness. According to Bloomberg.com: "AAF Holdings LLC sold 12 percent, five-year bonds with a payment-in-kind toggle option, which allows interest to be paid in additional notes... The PIKs, one of the riskiest forms of debt, yielded 10.25 percentage points more than similar-maturity Treasuries." Now that the private market has evaluated All Aboard Florida's credit, it is clear that a long-term $1.5 billion dollar loan from the federal government would represent a multi-billion dollar subsidy in terms of saved interest costs. It is doubtful that the company could secure such a loan from private sources at any price.
- The date for release of the draft EIS continues to be pushed back and now it may not arrive before Fall.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ALL ABOARD FLORIDA:
- *Florida NOT All Aboard, on Facebook and their website.
- *Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council's AAF information page. An excellent, continually updated resource that includes a comprehensive contact list.
June 26, 2014
Mary's campaign recently passed important milestones, receiving endorsements and qualifying for the ballot. Qualification for the ballot in Florida requires filing personal financial information, some other paperwork, and either paying a fee or turning in at least 1,089 petitions signed by registered voters in the district. Mary is one of the very few candidates in our area who qualified by petition this year.
Her campaign wants to thank everyone who signed a petition and also the volunteers who helped Mary with her effort. Mary personally collected the majority of the petitions. It was a lot of walking and a lot of work but also a great experience. Talking to people one on one offers an unparalleled opportunity to learn what is really on the voters' minds.
Mary has received some notable endorsements. Her first endorsement came from the Palm Beach-Treasure Coast AFL-CIO. She has also received endorsements from the Florida AFL-CIO and Florida NOW (National Organization for Women) PAC. Mary wants to thank each of these organizations for giving her the opportunity to earn their support. She seeks to live up to the confidence they have shown in her and plans to join them in advocating on behalf of Florida's women and working people.
Follow the links below to learn more about these important organizations:
October 12, 2013
Sometimes, the most important news is something that didn't happen. On October 12, 2013, the big news was what the Scott administration didn't do- they didn't exercise an option to purchase land from U. S. Sugar at a set price of $7,400 an acre. The state could have bought the full 153,200 acres available for $1.13 billion or it could have bought 46,800 acres for $346,000,000. Land currently being used for sugar cultivation must be purchased if there is to be any possibility of creating a flow way to take excess flows into Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades. Until that happens, the excess water will continue to be sent east and west with disastrous consequences for the estuaries on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The state no longer has an exclusive option or a set price, but it retains the option to purchase sugar lands "at market price" through 2020. The discouraging part of the story is not that the deal wasn't done. The discouraging part is that it appears not to have been seriously considered. Ernie Barnett, interim director of the South Florida Water Management District stated that "We are not in any discussions on that with the company."
We are not in any discussions on that with the company.
Environmental land purchases by the state have traditionally been financed by bonds secured by revenues from the real estate documentary stamp tax. Florida has significantly reduced its debt service cost in recent years by refinancing existing debt issues at the historically low rates that have been available. That burden should be reduced still further in 2013-14 as bonds from Preservation 2000 are paid off. The opportunity remains, it is the will that is lacking. Rick Scott actively campaigned against buying sugar lands when he ran for governor and can hardly be expected to support such purchases now.
More importantly, Scott and most current Republicans generally prefer to avoid spending on government programs and public works. In their "business friendly" worldview, public expenditures are justified when they reduce costs or increase profits for businesses and automatically suspect otherwise. Business owners and companies seeking profits are large political donors. When favorable legislative treatment increases their profits, they are willing and able to donate even more to pliant politicians' campaigns. Once started, this process is self-reinforcing.
Consider the Republican record under Rick Scott. When he took office, Governor Scott called for the elimination of corporate income taxes. He wanted to reduce the current 5.5% rate to 3%, then eliminate it entirely by 2018. This tax accounts for over $2 billion or around 9% of state tax revenues. Scott was not able to sell his plan, so he sought to reduce the taxes another way- by increasing the level of exemption from the first $5,000 of taxable income to $25,000. He persuaded the legislature and in 2012 he got the legislature to raise the exemption again to $50,000. The governor's office credits these two cuts for saving businesses (and reducing tax revenues) $56,000,000 a year. In another nod to business interests, the Republicans cut sales taxes for manufacturers at a cost of $140,000,000 a year.
In budget circles, these kinds of measures are called tax expenditures. Exempting a particular class of individuals from a tax that others pay has the same budgetary impact as collecting the tax from everyone who is similarly situated and then spending some of the proceeds on the privileged class of taxpayers. That money is spent- it is no longer available for any other purpose. Two years worth of just these two tax expenditures that benefited private businesses would have been more than enough to purchase the 46,800 acre portion of the sugar lands. Of course, since environmental bonds are usually paid off over 20 years, a small fraction of that money would have been adequate to fund the purchase. In the end, it is a simple budgetary choice- fund one thing and cut the other.
Economists project that the state will be helped by an expected $845 million surplus in the 2014-2015 budget year. Rick Scott, however, wants to cut state taxes by $500 million. He is up for re-election in 2014. In the same vein, Senator Joe Negron, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has proposed cutting $230 million in auto registration fees. He attempted to pass similar legislation last year but tried to offset the tax expenditure by ending a tax break for the insurance industry. Each year the tax break saves Florida Blue $32.5 million and State Farm $25 million. The bill went nowhere. The prospects for the fee cut are much better this year because it is an election year and the projected surplus eliminates the need to raid the insurance company tax break. The giveback, if passed, would equal about half the increase that was enacted in response to the budget shortfall faced in 2009. A possible roadblock to the "tax cut" is Senator Negron's own expressed desire to increase state reserves by $500 million.
Senator Negron says he wants to send the water south. But first he wants to support Scott's election year tax cut, including the partial refund for auto registrations, and he also wants to pump up reserves. Florida's car owners surely would appreciate getting half their money back. Insurance companies and manufacturers will also want to keep their tax breaks. The estuaries may have to wait.
Traditional Republican voters have a painful reality to face. The Republicans in Tallahassee are now Teapublicans. The Florida Republican Party has been taken over by a well-funded radical fringe which is focused on representing special interests.
The lost summer of 2013 was a stark reminder that our rivers are an essential source of our quality of life and the engine of our economic well-being. No issue is more important than restoring and maintaining the environmental health of our estuary.