Susan Mehiel: Parks, Trains and the Truth

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Free Bing Image of Vero Beach, FL City Councilor Dr. Val Zudans

After fighting for years to stop the trains against deep pocket corporations and elected officials with self-serving interests, we couldn’t help but view the last debacle facing Vero Beach with a jaundiced eye.

With little notice in mid-May, Vero Beach City Councilman Dr. Zudans introduced the concept of leasing the River House in Alex MacWilliam Park to a private entity, Orchid Island Brewery.  In a lengthy discussion (May 15 Minutes on the city website), many issues were raised including: parking & traffic, serving alcohol the better part of every day near little league baseball and the elementary school, privatizing our parks and the protections of the City Charter.

The City Attorney pointed out leasing the building would require a referendum put before the voters but drafting a Concession License would get around a vote.  So there’s a City Charter protecting local parks but also a way around that charter if you want to interpret the activities of Orchid Island Brewery as a “recreational, artistic, or cultural purpose, including incidental concessions.”  Mr. Zudans didn’t just want a discussion, he wanted the Council to vote on moving forward on drafting a License.

This process is sounding very familiar for a number of reasons.  By the time we heard about the All Aboard Florida project, most Miami/Dade and Broward county officials were well informed and on board.   Based on the discussion in May, it appears Councilmen Zudans, and Sykes, the Mayor and the City Attorney were already well ahead of the taxpayers at the meeting.

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In defending the trains, corporate executives stretched the truth, obfuscated and stonewalled.  With the “Brewery in the Park”, the councilmen tried to suggest the Seaside Grill in Jaycee Park is the same type of concession, even though it was pointed out the Grill doesn’t serve alcohol and isn’t by a ball park, dog park or school.  They also argued the River House allows alcohol to be served, while it was countered the allowances are on a one-time basis and not every day noon until midnight.

For the trains, the skids were greased for private businesses.  Regulations were interpreted and oversight bodies lobbied so that each request of a government or quasi-government agency was met with approval.  This is not to equate the brewery to the railroad corporations but why this specific private business?  If the council wanted to license any parkland or facilities to private businesses, why not announce the plan to the public and solicit offers from all interested business owners from the start?

As the park issue played out, a ground swell of residents signed petitions and packed meetings in order to voice opposition to the leasing.  They were called fear mongers by Dr. Zudans.  We were called fear mongers by many train supporters and executives; with eight deaths on the tracks, we take no joy in being right. Councilman Zudans not only insults the opposition organizers with name calling but also insults the people joining them by insinuating they are easily led.  As we’ve said about the trains – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know a bad idea when we see one.

We said early on, council leadership should have begun this process by organizing a study of all park facilities and city owned land parcels and determined the best uses for each based on taxpayers’ desires and the city budget’s long-term financial needs. If Dr. Zudans had thought of this before he started carrying a banner for the brewery, maybe he wouldn’t have suffered the slings and arrows of skepticism and difficult questions.  Now taxpayers should be demanding this as a first step and Dr. Zudans should stop whining.

Jacee Park

Jaycee Park, Vero Beach

Susan Mehiel was one of the first activists to realize the negative impact of All Aboard Florida when it first surfaced at the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. She has been researching the issue for the past five years while spearheading the Indian River County grassroots movement in opposition to AAF. 

[Ms. Mehiel’s comments are her own and do not reflect the position(s) of Vero Communiqué.]

We strive to encourage a free and open exchange of opinions and welcome yours. Through discussions like these we can all learn more about the topics themselves and the perspectives of others.

3 thoughts on “Susan Mehiel: Parks, Trains and the Truth

  1. Free Bing Image of Vero Beach, FL City Counselor (sic) Dr. Val Zudans

    (An excellent example of why not to use a big word when a simple one will do – Councilor is misspelled (and/or misused}}

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  2. At the end of Ms. Meheil’s commentary are two contradictory statements (not, evidently, by Mehiel):

    “Susan Mehiel was one of the first activists to realize the negative impact of All Aboard Florida when it first surfaced at the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. She has been researching the issue for the past five years while spearheading the Indian River County grassroots movement in opposition to AAF.”

    Followed by…

    “[Ms. Mehiel’s comments are her own and do not reflect the position(s) of Vero Communiqué.]”

    I suggest the second does not follow from the first.

    The first cleverly advocates for Mehiel’s position with respect to Brightline (aka, All Aboard Florida).

    How so? Consider: “to realize the negative impact of All Aboard Florida”

    The statement assumes things not known.

    From the beginning, opposition to Brightline has been built upon fearmongering based on misinformation, half-truths, and absurd statements.

    “high-speed trains”, “56 daily trains”, “70 trains a day”, “Bomb trains”, “destroy our quality of life”, “all about freight”, “traffic nightmare”, “safety – people will die because emergency responders will be stuck at crossings”, etc., have been routinely repeated for years. Yet there is no rational argument to support these allegations. No facts support them. Just emotional fear-mongering.

    Now Mehiel alleges that bureaucrats were improperly influenced by politicians to approve the project. That’s a serious charge that, like the others, Mehiel simply spouts without any evidence whatsoever. That kind of reckless writing will not benefit either Mehiel or her position.

    But let’s examine just a few of the wild accusations against Brightline:

    1. High-speed trains. The very highest speed Brightline will reach is 125 mph, the top speed of the diesel-electric locomotives Brightline will use. They cannot achieve higher speeds. The 125 mph zone will have zero grade crossings (between Orlando’s new terminal and the FEC mainline in Cocoa, FL). Speeds are limited to 79 mph from Palm Beach south. Through the Treasure Coast, top speed will be 110 mph (by FRA law) and that speed is above the average speed through the Treasure Coast. By definition, true “high-speed rail” are trains that travel in excess of 150 mph. Brightline is an “intercity express” service, not “high-speed rail.” They call them ICE trains in Europe.

    2. 56 or more daily trains (freight plus Brightline). The claimed high daily numbers of trains were based on adding the claimed daily FEC trains (24) to the projected daily Brightline trains (32). Higher numbers were based on the claimed increase in daily freight trains that were said to be an effect of opening the new, widened Panama Canal that allows the Chinamax super-freighters to come directly to the deepwater Port of Miami. Again, objectors have always vastly overstated their case just to create sufficient fear to muster opposition. The actual number of daily freight trains tops out at just 9 during midweek, with as few as 5 during the weekend. Further, because Brightline trains are much shorter (less than one-ninth the length of FEC freight trains) and Brightline trains travel at a higher speed than FEC freights, the road closure time for Brightline trains are much less than for freight trains. Opponents never address that inconvenient fact. As it turns out, 10 Brightline trains close a road crossing for the same time as one FEC freight train. Adding 32 Brightline trains to the daily train total amounts to adding slightly more than 3 FEC freight trains! So instead of 9 trains a day, the change would be more like 12 to 13 trains a day, about one-half of what objectors were claiming FEC alone operates today and about 20% of the lowest total objectors claimed.

    3. All about freight. This is perhaps the silliest of all objector beliefs. The line from Miami to Cocoa will be double-tracked to allow for simultaneous operations without interruption. Desperately seeking any objection to Brightline, opponents claimed that the whole Brightline project was subterfuge by the FEC freight railroad (ultimately owned by the same company, though each would operate under independent companies, FECR and FECI). The claim was that when the new widened canal would open, the Port of Miami would be flooded with trans-Pacific freight coming through the new canal. This would require more freight trains and the FEC needed to double-track their freight line to handle the extra freight. The AAF/Brightline proposal was said to be a scheme to get federal funding to pay for the double-tracking for the FEC under the guise it was really for AAF/Brightline. When Brightline failed, the FEC would have its double-tracking, courtesy of taxpayers left holding the bag. This “thought” failed to acknowledge some realities:

    (1) there are many deepwater ports capable of taking Chinamax freighters on this side of the canal.

    (2) freight shippers ship to the port that is closest to the ultimate destination (e.g., freight for the northeast could dock at Norfolk, New York, Boston, etc.), it would not be shipped to the Port of Miami and then taken by freight train to other parts of the country that are best served by other deepwater ports.

    (3) FEC’s justification to exist is the vital freight link it provides to southeast Florida’s large urban complex because items that could not go through the old canal were shipped to Pacific ports, transferred to freight trains to travel across the continent to Jacksonville from which the FEC brought them to southeast Florida. 70% to 80% of northbound FEC freight cars travel empty. When the new canal opened, there would ultimately be a LOSS of business for the FEC freight railroad. Sure enough, the maximum daily FEC trains through the Treasure Coast dropped from 11 per day BEFORE the new canal opened to 9 per day two years after the opening.

    (4) Evidently, it never occurred to those “all about freight” objectors exactly what would happen above Cocoa (about the half-way point from Miami to Jacksonville). If double-tracking was needed for increased FEC freight traffic, but only half the route was double-tracked, just how was that traffic going to be managed above Cocoa?

    4. Safety. Train safety will be improved by AAF/Brightline because every grade crossing will be improved to “sealed corridor” standards of the FRA. This would allow for “Quiet Zones” where train horns could be silenced. Grade crossing improvements make impossible the weaving around the gates maneuver that kills most people who try to beat the train at a crossing. Suicide by train cannot be prevented.

    Have opponents assembled convincing evidence that the new service from Palm Beach to Miami has created safety problems? Are people dying because they cannot get to the hospital because a passenger train closed the crossing gates? Note that, if it isn’t a problem in the Miami-Palm Beach area where the population and traffic density are much greater and the train speeds lower, it can hardly become a problem in the Treasure Coast (less traffic, faster trains, shorter crossing closures, fewer EMS calls).

    In short, all of the objector claims are based on misinformation and deceiving statements. In fact, Brightline would be a great benefit to this area and it is a real shame that politicians don’t have the backbone to deal with this realistically and try to obtain a benefit for Indian River County by lobbying Brightline for a train station. Instead, they’ve squandered millions of tax dollars in the delusional pursuit of “stopping the train”, something that won’t happen because there is really no good argument to do so!

    Finally, as with her objections to the AAF/ Brightline project, Mehiel takes a jaundiced view of City Council members who proposed a novel use of a public facility. While I personally understand the objections and would not have supported the proposal, nevertheless, it really isn’t proper to be casting aspersions just because a Council member brings a proposal to the table. If people cannot maturely discuss a proposal, even those that may be unpopular, then we are all disserved. The discussion of what may be an unpopular proposal will serve the useful purpose of either (1) surfacing facts that others hadn’t considered that may be sufficient to cast a new light on the proposal, or (2) solidifying objections to the proposal based on a rational, reasoned view of the facts. In either case, the people will be served by open discussion.

    It is wrong to make allegations without presenting convincing evidence they have merit.

    And it is just as wrong to prevent what may be an “unpopular” proposal from having a proper airing or suggest those who bring such proposals forth have done something illicit or have something to gain by the effort.

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  3. The last paragraph of 2. above reads:

    “So instead of 9 trains a day, the change would be more like 12 to 13 trains a day, about one-half of what objectors were claiming FEC alone operates today and about 20% of the lowest total objectors claimed.”

    It should read:

    “So instead of 9 FEC trains a day (maximum), the change would be more like 12 to 13 FEC trains a day, not the 26 or more trains a day claimed by objectors.”

    Sorry about that… no editing option once posted.

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