St. Augustine Airport Authority opposes high speed rail site
(The following story by Peter Guinta appeared on the St. Augustine Record website on July 19, 2010.)
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — State transportation planners envision Amtrak passenger trains rumbling through St. Augustine someday and stopping at San Marco Station, a renovated 1960s-era depot south of Winn-Dixie on U.S. 1 North.
But St. Augustine Airport Authority would love to squish that vision and substitute what they see as a better one: Trains stopping at a modern Amtrak station across U.S. 1 from Northeast Florida Regional Airport, where passengers can walk across an elevated causeway to airline flights, auto rental kiosks, taxis, shuttles and the Sunshine Bus.
Ed Wuellner, authority executive director, said, “It’s our duty to do whatever we can to get this here for the benefit of St. Johns County, not just St. Augustine. The cost (of the station) will never be on the taxpayers of St. Johns County. It will be paid by fees. The more you look at the city’s location, the less it makes sense.”
The authority, in a 5-0 vote, passed a resolution Tuesday endorsing a “multi-modal” transportation center at the airport to “facilitate the movement of persons, goods and services.”
However, Kim DeLaney, growth management coordinator for Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council in Stuart, said Amtrak is happy with the site chosen by St. Augustine.
“(It’s) a half-mile north of the historic district,” she said. “At this point, the locations are identified and Amtrak has indicated its preference.”
Attack and defense
Wuellner has the full backing of his board, which doesn’t want to quit the effort. He points to state and federal grants and the presence of a U.S. Customs office on the airport that could facilitate tourists from the Caribbean.
“Amtrak will bring about 17,000 passengers a year to St. Augustine,” he said. “But a single Skybus-type operation with 140 seats — one plane in and one out per day — equals about 60,000 people.”
Authority members Jim Werter and Carl Youman are outspoken on this issue.Werter said, “The city claims that its site will be intermodal, but carriages and trolleys don’t exactly make an intermodal situation. There’s an apparent utopian idea by St. Augustine that Amtrak will pull in there and people will just get off and walk into the center of town.”
Youman agreed: “The intermodal center (here) would not serve just St. Augustine but the entire county. If we didn’t continue our efforts (to get it), we would be remiss.”
DeLaney said Amtrak prefers stations “within or close to a city’s center. It sees a much higher ridership here if the station is near your historic downtown. There can be local trolley service to access the site and carry passengers to their ultimate destination.”
St. Augustine Vice Mayor Errol Jones is equally adamant about keeping the site.
“(The airport) is isolated,” Jones said. “Private planes are the only things flying out of there. There are no commercial planes. Commuter rail to Jacksonville may be applicable for that site. But people from New York or Miami (coming here on Amtrak) don’t want to stop at the airport. They’d get off the train, look around and think, ‘What do I do now?’ There’s absolutely nothing there.”
City officials first chose a rail station site at the end of Carrera Street, across U.S. 1 from the main fire station. Henry Flagler, who’d built the Florida East Coast Railway, also built the city’s first depot on that site. Horse-drawn carriages carried passengers, luggage and freight downtown.
DeLaney said last week that the Carrera Street site was rejected for “infrastructure problems.” A costly railroad bridge would have to be built to accommodate a second track, the curve was too tight and there wasn’t room for 1,000 feet of platform.
Wuellner added, “The Carrera Street station would have cost $8 million to $10 million. The city would have to pay 20 percent. I don’t think city taxpayers would approve paying millions, plus adding extra employees to the payroll.”
Northeast Florida Regional was also eliminated from consideration because it’s too far to walk to commercial districts. But authority members laughed at that observation.
Wuellner said, “Opportunities (for a station within walking distance of downtown) are long gone. There’s no location that will meet the test of walkability. If we had any level of airline service, this would be a slam dunk.”
Wuellner said that, despite the grousing and sparring, the authority would support the city site when and if it becomes reality.
“We are 18 months into the evaluation process,” DeLaney said.
She explained that $2.35 billion has been appropriated for High-Speed Intensity Passenger Rail, and there is lots of competition for it, but some of that money is eligible to be spent on intercity passenger rail.
Financing decisions will be made Aug. 6.
Amtrak won’t be high-speed rail, which goes more than 100 mph, but some trains could reach 90 mph on the Jacksonville to Miami route.
So far, there have been no estimates of how much it will cost St. Augustine and the Florida Department of Transportation to renovate the old station, which closed in 1968 after a railroad strike.
Wuellner said, “People who make funding decisions don’t want to put money into a project that doesn’t make sense. If you’re going to place the station five miles outside the city, what’s the matter with seven?”
San Marco Station will cover 2,500 square feet, have parking for 25 cars and require a 1,000-foot platform that must be two-thirds covered by a canopy.Jones said, “(That site) is the least costly (alternative).”
DeLaney said San Marco was the superior location.
“This is a project that gives us a lot of reason to celebrate,” she said.
Monday, July 19, 2010
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