By Mary Thurwachter
Lantana said no to a crossing agreement with Florida East Coast Railway and All Aboard Florida.
“This has to do with a second line for All Aboard Florida that they are going to be running through our town,” Mayor Dave Stewart explained during the Town Council’s Feb. 13 meeting, at which the council voted 3-2 against the agreement.
Tequesta and Lantana are the only two municipalities involved in Palm Beach County that have not signed agreements. Municipalities that have signed are Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Lake Worth, West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach and Palm Beach Gardens.
Neil Schiller, the attorney representing All Aboard Florida, said the town already has a crossing agreement with Florida East Coast Railway, which owns the property where the railroad crossings are (one at West Ocean Avenue and the other at Finlandia Boulevard and West Central Boulevard).
“Because Mr. (Henry) Flagler was here so much earlier than all of us, he owns that property and, for cities to cross the property, they have these crossing agreements,” Schiller said. “There are a multitude of crossing agreements from the Keys all the way north to Jacksonville. Some are as old as 1896 and some are as recent as 1958. But they are still in effect.”
He said that All Aboard Florida, an express passenger rail service that will eventually connect Miami to Orlando, is a sister company to Florida East Coast Railway.
“I have been hired to have all the municipalities that have crossing agreements with FEC to add All About Florida as a third-party beneficiary,” Schiller said.
By adding a third-party beneficiary, he said, costs for initial improvements made on the crossings to accommodate the new train would be covered by All Aboard Florida. Each municipality would pick up costs after that.
Without the third-party beneficiary contract, if something needs to be done on the tracks, All Aboard Florida would have to go through FECR, which would then call the town.
“We want to be able to work directly with the town,” Schiller said. “FECR is very difficult sometimes, so we want to eliminate that step.”
Schiller said All Aboard Florida is supporting efforts to create quiet zones in the construction phase of the project.
Council member Malcolm Balfour said the proposed agreement wasn’t fair.
“After the first 10 or 11 years, we’ll have to pick up the tab for the maintenance costs, and that seems unfair because we didn’t ask for a 79-mile-per-hour railroad to come through our town. …It’s not going to do anything for Lantana, and that just worries me.”
Schiller said he appreciated Balfour’s comments, “but the project is occurring. We’re starting this summer. Some of the new trains have been delivered and we’re already testing them.
“Not signing the agreement doesn’t mean the project is dead,” Schiller said. “Not signing this agreement means we are going to write you a bill for the improvements that were made for the crossings, and we have every right to do that.”
Stewart showed a railroad plan from 2009 and said the railroad had “a dog and pony show” then and listed where all the railroad stations would be, including Lantana.
“They were going to be bringing people, we were going to have businesses and there were people in town who owned properties they kept from improving because they thought there was going to be a new train station,” Stewart said. “What happened to 2009? This is what was sold to us.”
Schiller said the 2009 plan, which he had not seen, wasn’t All Aboard Florida.
Stewart, Balfour and Council member Philip Aridas voted no to the crossing agreement. Council members Tom Deringer and Lynn Moorhouse voted for it.
“I don’t have to like it to know it’s in the best interest of the town,” Moorhouse said.
“This is kind of where we’re at from what the Flagler legacy is telling us,” Stewart said. “We either sign the agreement or you are going to bill us for the work you’ve already done for a rail line that we have no say in and that we will have no impact, no income from.”
Schiller said the decision to bill the town would be up to his client.
Over the years, Stewart said, the town had been paying for improvements and maintenance and the right to run water and sewer lines under the tracks.
“I understand that,” he said. “But there have been a couple of things I asked for. How about the sidewalk and bicycle lane alongside U.S. 1 so that we can make U.S. 1 safer. Have there been any agreements on that?”
Although Schiller said he had been working toward agreements and to coordinate the best and most expedient way to make that happen, he didn’t have a definitive answer for the mayor.
At the town’s Feb. 27 meeting, the council voted to invite representatives of All Aboard Florida to return to once again discuss the crossing agreement. This passed by a 3-1 vote with the mayor dissenting. Aridas thought the matter should be discussed more and was able to get Moorhouse and Balfour to agree. Deringer was absent.
Bringing the attorney back may be pointless, though.
“There’s not anything to come back for,’’ Town Attorney Max Lohman said. “They’re not going to make any concessions.’’
By Mary Thurwachter