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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Archaeologists Fight High Speed Rail in Fla.

(CN) - A nonprofit archaeology group is among those claiming the U.S. Department of Transportation illegally approved funding for a high-speed rail project they contend will put the public and environment at risk while dramatically reducing their access to prehistoric artifacts.

The group was joined by officials from Indian River County, Fla., in a federal lawsuit challenging All Aboard Florida, a planned high-speed rail line between Orlando and Miami.

The lawsuit asks the D.C. Federal Court to void the Transportation Department's approval of $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds, a primary source of funding for the project.

If the bonds remain in place and the All Aboard vision is realized, 32 passenger trains a day will soon be plowing through Indian River County at more than 100 miles an hour, reducing quality of life along the tracks and generating unmanageable traffic, the lawsuit claims.

The high-speed rail operation allegedly will encroach upon two excavation sites: one where an ancient human specimen called "Vero Man" is said to have been unearthed, and another where the bones of a prehistoric sloth and a mastodon were reportedly found.

According to a 2011 article in the Journal of Archaeological Science, one item found in Vero Beach, Fla. in 2006 is a depiction of a mastodon or mammoth carved in fossil bone that may be at least 13,000 years old.

The non-profit archaeology group, plaintiff Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee, is fighting to protect the excavation areas, which "each lie in or adjacent to the railroad right-of-way," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the rail line will also disturb local wildlife, slow down emergency response times around crossings, and create a constant cacophony of train horns.

"The use of shared railroad tracks" creates "the potential for collisions between passenger and freight trains," the plaintiffs insist.

According to the complaint, the federal officials signed off on the tax-exempt bonds for the high-speed railroad before the completion of various review processes mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.

"Neither the defendants nor any other federal agency has consulted with Indian River County under Section 106 [of the National Historic Preservation Act] or invited Indian River County to join the consultation process that Section 106 requires," the complaint states.

Indian River County and Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee are represented by attorney Daniel Schwartz with Bryan Cave LLP in the federal case.

They seek an injunction to halt the issuance of the bonds until the lawsuit is adjudicated and an environmental impact review is completed as dictated by federal statutes.

The lawsuit labels the bond approval as "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and unlawful."

Martin County, about 20 miles south of Indian River County, recently passed a resolution to fight the high-speed railroad as well.

County commissioners set aside $1.4 million "to be used for the opposition of All Aboard Florida, including legal action," public records show.

Preliminary construction of the railway's first leg - from Miami to West Palm Beach - began last year.

All Aboard says on its website that the adverse effects of the project will be kept well under control.

"By utilizing existing rail and road transportation corridors, the environmental impact of construction is minimal. The trains will take three million vehicles off roads. This will reduce fuel consumption, reduce Florida's carbon footprint, and pave the way for a greener, eco-friendly future," All Aboard's website says.

The website claims the railroad will bring 20,000 jobs to Florida during the initial two-year construction phase.

All Aboard is a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, which is owned by Fortress Investment Group, a publicly traded investment firm based in New York.

Last year, Fortress reportedly issued $405 million worth of debt in the form of high-yield bonds to fund the Florida rail line buildout. In October 2014, the Department of Transportation's Under Secretary approved the subsequent round of financing (the $1.75 billion private-activity bond issuance), which will allow bondholders to forego tax liability on the interest paid to them. All Aboard says its high-speed train service through South Florida will begin as soon as 2016.

Florida nearly built a high-speed rail line back in 2011 with funds from an economic stimulus package, but the project fell through as Governor Rick Scott, newly elected at the time, refused to accept federal money, citing concerns over the long-term financial viability of the line.

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