Florida railroad project opponents largely ignored by Miami Herald

Photo: AP

MIAMI, FL — A planned expansion of passenger rail in south and central Florida could be a big deal for the region, but coverage has been decidedly hyperlocal—and not in a good way.

The project, All Aboard Florida, is being touted as a privately funded project to offer express passenger service between downtown Miami and the Orlando airport, with stops in Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. It will use tracks laid in the 1890s that run up the east coast of Florida, and currently are used only for cargo trains. The owners are also building an architecturally stunning station and retail/residential complex in Miami, billed as “the grand central station of a major city.” Work on the downtown station and the initial Miami-to-West Palm Beach rail spur is already underway, and service along the full route to Orlando is scheduled to begin in 2017.

That much, readers of any paper along the route could glean. And here in Miami, where the Miami Herald has run several gushing stories about the downtown project, it’s about all readers might learn. (I worked for the Herald from 2003 to 2009, but never covered transportation or downtown development there.)

What Herald readers are barely seeing: There is intense resistance to the new passenger trains in counties to the north, with both activists and public officials trying to stall or kill the project.

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AAF is facing community opposition from northern Palm Beach County all the way through the four counties to the north—places that will see more train traffic, but won’t get more service. The Indian River County commission recently filed suit to try to block the new passenger trains, arguing that the federal Department of Transportation improperly approved the service without taking into account its effect on the local community, and officials in Martin County have voted to do the same. Boaters are upset about the impact of rail bridges on waterways; county sheriffs are worried about the safety risks of high-speed rail; homeowners, of course, are worried about property values. An analysis commissioned by the opponents predicts huge losses for the rail service. And, in an apparent minor victory for the opposition, a state board that must approve AAF’s plan to issue $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds deferred a decision at its last meeting, setting up a potential deadline crunch for the project’s financing.

You can get that side of the story from The Palm Beach Post and the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers (three dailies serving Martin, St. Lucie, and Indian River counties), which have devoted dozens of stories to AAF. This coverage, much of it behind paywalls, catalogues the regulatory process and the opposition efforts in detail. And occasionally, it turns up something new—like a look at the lobbying on behalf of the project, or AAF’s plans to ask for state money to connect to commuter rail in Miami, or the discovery by the Treasure Coast papers that AAF had told the state it didn’t know of any local communities that would oppose the bond issue (apparently, the money raised would only be spent for work in counties that support the project).

As in Miami, coverage from the outlets to the north has emphasized local community interests; you won’t find many stories on the new Miami station complex in the Treasure Coast papers. And I have not seen an authoritative, big-picture piece on the project’s merits in any outlet.

Still, within that context the coverage from the papers in Palm Beach County and along the Treasure Coast has been generally balanced, with looks at what both opponents and proponents say—while also making clear that the opposition faces a steep uphill battle.

Readers of the Herald, by contrast, might not even know that opposition exists. The Indian River lawsuit merited a wire service brief in the business section, and some other developments have received no coverage at all. K.C. Traylor, a community activist in Martin County and the head of the opposition group Florida Not All Aboard, told me the Herald has never called her. “We want the media to cover both sides,” she said. “It’s disappointing that not all the media has.” (Ft. Lauderdale’s South Florida Sun Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel, papers in other cities that will be served by the new service, each wrote about the opposition last summer.)

Jay Ducassi, the Herald’s city editor, acknowledged the paper hasn’t been covering the opposition.

“Our coverage is concentrated in Miami-Dade County,” he said. “We’ve reflected what people here are talking about and what’s been happening here.” He thought the Herald had picked up a few stories about opposition from The Palm Beach Post.

In an era of shrunken newsrooms and local focus, that’s understandable. But it’s disappointing to see a big-city paper take an essentially parochial approach on what is in important ways a regional and even state-level issue. Though the opposition faces long odds—and is concentrated on the northern spur, not the Miami station or Miami-to-West Palm line—it still has some chance of affecting the project. It’s part of the story. And though AAF may well have persuasive responses to all the complaints, a project of this scale merits a little more scrutiny.

The Herald is a great paper in many ways, but it can do a lot better covering this issue.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.