The Bitterest Woman, Part 2: What’s At Stake With The Gernert/Alexander Memorial Freight Corridor (And Truck Stop)

Writer’s Note: Let me thank commenter Sean Wright for his extensive contributions. One point of clarification, though, in response to this line: “I believe this article highlight’s why you’re writing for a small town newspaper.” For the record, I don’t write for a newspaper, small or otherwise, which is why you are reading this on a blog. Most people could probably infer that on their own, but I’m here to help.

OK. I promise not to say anything too snarky or gratuitous today. It’s all business. I want to address a key line of rhetorical attack that Ms. Healy and some of our friends and neighbors in the Winter Haven government and chamber and Orlando area have used throughout this saga.

Here it is, distilled, in a quote from Ms. Healy’s most recent column:

“Instead of representing voters in Osceola, [Paula Dockery] seems far more concerned about pleasing trial attorneys and labor unions, and about the possibility of a few extra freight trains in her hometown of Lakeland.” (emphasis mine)

Put aside the dirty trial lawyers and awful working people for now, let’s consider this “just a few trains” line. Take a close look (you too, Bob) at the two property appraiser images pictures that accompany this post.

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Those parallel lines you see running through the heart of downtown Lakeland represent the 100 feet of right of way that CSX owns. As you can see, CSX is not using anywhere near the full 100-feet right now. The rest of it extends into downtown parking areas and sidewalks – almost to Munn Park – and even into some existing buildings, including the one housing Crispers on Kentucky (Are you listening, Publix?) and the police station. It does pinch down a bit east of downtown, and I’m not sure what the ultimate consequence of that might be.

Some years ago, and I’ve seen the old photos from what I guess were the 60s and 70s, there were multiple rail lines – not one. They cut a much wider swath through downtown. I don’t know all the history behind their disappearance, but I suspect they went away at the time that freight rail nearly disappeared in the country as a whole, back in the 70s and early 80s. (That’s an entirely different, but very important story.) No one, including the rail companies, who wanted to get rid of lines for efficiency reasons, thought they were coming back. But they are, thanks to the cost of oil.

If DOT pays the $600 million-plus to merge the A and S-lines into the single JD Alexander/Bob Gernert Memorial Freight Superhighway and runs it through Lakeland’s core, does anyone think CSX won’t unleash bulldozers up to the edge of its full downtown right of way? Does anyone think those multiple tracks aren’t coming back? I don’t have timetables or copies of secret plans. But at $4 gas, freight rail owns the future of shipping.

In those pictures I’ve seen, the tracks and area around them looked ugly and industrial. A lot has happened in downtown Lakeland since those tracks reduced to one. Millions in public and private investment have created a walkable urban core that can rival any mid-sized city. We have grown smartly and responsibly – unlike our friends in Winter Haven and Orlando.

So this deal is not about “a few trains.” It’s not about numbers. It’s about setting patterns, forever. This has always been about reorganizing Florida’s shipping economy around CSX and a few other people. Passenger rail is an afterthought. For Lakeland, this means the long-term, irreversible creation of an industrial corridor through what has become the living room of our city. It is the squandering of huge public investment spent in good faith and under the principles of good growth in the service of a plan in which we were never included.

I’m not sure whay it’s so hard for the people behind this deal to acknowledge this and act in good faith to mitigate it. I welcome anyone to explain why I’m wrong. Tell me why what I’m describing won’t happen. And don’t just shout “misinformation,” make an argument.

Even if Jane Healy – or Buddy Dyer or Dean Cannon or Bob Gernert or Jacob Stuart – think I’m full of it, why not just humor us? If it’s really “just a few trains,” why not call on CSX and the state to write into the deal that CSX can’t use any more of the right-of-way in Lakeland than it already does and that any new line built on the existing line must be dedicated for passenger rail?

Again, if it’s just a few trains, that shouldn’t be a problem. Least of all for Ms. Healy, as a writer with no accountability. I have no idea if this would fly with anyone. But it would be one more concrete offer than anyone in any significant position has made to ease Lakeland’s concerns.

That’s what so amazing to me. Lakeland, and the many east Polk residents who don’t want State Road 60 and their neighborhoods turned into the mother of all truck stops, are less powerful than the Orlando political cabal. We have been reminded of that incessantly. The only leverage we have over our future in dealing with this deal is its lack of existence. The moment it does go through, CSX and the state will say Lakeland who? Polk how? Seth what? We will be at the mercy of whatever makes CSX money. That means there is zero incentive not to fight. CSX will punish Lakeland if it’s lucrative for it to do so. If it’s not lucrative, it won’t. So there’s nothing for Lakeland to lose. I promise you that CSX won’t spend one red cent more on any mitigation than someone in a position of power makes it spend. Why on earth wouldn’t the state offer Lakeland something to lose solely out of tactics? And no, rumblings about a quiet zone and meaningless legislative intent don’t count.

And for those people who say this is the first step in a Jacksonville to Tampa rail link, please explain how that will physically happen over a right of way CSX needs for its supersized freight ambitions. I still haven’t heard it. Bob Gernert said a while back that the state would double track all the way to Tampa eventually. Really? And how does it plan to get access to CSX’s property? Once the state commits itself in Orlando to using CSX land for its statewide rail links, CSX gets to name its price and its access rules for each new segment. We are already paying more than $400 million for 61 miles. According to deal proponents, that’s the true value of the corridor. How much will that per mile cost jump, and what concession will the state yield for the next chunk, whereever it may be. Think about that TBARTA.

Meanwhile, California just agreed to pay $14.3 million for 32 miles of active freight track. I’m a writer not a mathematician, but…I know, I know, somehow that’s apples and oranges.

Jane Healy would serve Orlando’s best interest if she pressured her people, the state and CSX to either move the Winter Haven hub or come up with a meaningful mitigation package. But that would require strategic, regional thinking, not verbal spitballs. It would require her to drop the ego and the attitude and look for solutions, not villains. She could provide a service by calling on the state to wait for the results of the DOT study of Polk impacts and rail future that should have been done at the beginning. She could call for a reasonable compromise on the liability issue, which frankly, is not my area of expertise.

The idea that we must hurry because federal money for rail transit is going to go away with $4-gallon gas, a Democratic congress, and most likely a Democratic president is laughable on its face. There is no urgency beyond the urgency of people who know they are pushing a destructive, anti-transit deal.

Just take another look at those maps.

Oh, and for good measure, the regional planning council should vote down the hub in Wednesday’s hearing. It’s a vote without consequence since everyone supposedly knows Winter Haven will ignore the council. It will be intriguing to see where Lakeland’s own County Commissioner Bob English, up for re-electioin, stands. Remember, he didn’t even want a DRI for the hub. Anyway, I say the council should make a mockery of a process that’s a mockery.

P.S. I would love for anyone involved in this deal, Jane Healy or otherwise, to respond to anything I’ve written. Chuck is more than willing to publish serious responses here on LL.

10 thoughts on “The Bitterest Woman, Part 2: What’s At Stake With The Gernert/Alexander Memorial Freight Corridor (And Truck Stop)

  1. Keep up the great reporting that it not getting any space here in Orlando. There are a number of people that want commuter rail here but not this deal, at this cost and not to the detriment of our neighbors.

  2. Keep up the great reporting that it not getting any space here in Orlando. There are a number of people that want commuter rail here but not this deal, at this cost and not to the detriment of our neighbors.

  3. Form the 14 mile sale article…

    ““The plan is to put all documents related to the acquisition in the public domain 30 days before a decision is made,” she said. “And there will be a lot of public input throughout the process. All of our meetings are public, and it’s a goal of the commission to have an informed public.””

    An informed public? Well isn’t that refreshing.

  4. Form the 14 mile sale article…

    ““The plan is to put all documents related to the acquisition in the public domain 30 days before a decision is made,” she said. “And there will be a lot of public input throughout the process. All of our meetings are public, and it’s a goal of the commission to have an informed public.””

    An informed public? Well isn’t that refreshing.

  5. On Wednesday, August 13, the Regional Planning Council held their collective noses and passed the DRI study onto Winter Haven with the approval of Mr. English. So much for Mr. English’s concern for the residents of Lakeland.

    A DRI is supposed to mean a Development of REGIONAL Impact study. As it turned out, the DRI process was twisted and distorted to become a Development of South Winter Haven Impact study as NO regional impacts were permitted in the study. Transportation was a pure white wash. The DRI study would have failed miserably if roads outside a 3 mile radius would have been studied. In other words, the DRI was a costly farce that CSX put over on the taxpayers of Florida. If you’re keeping score, you have to give CSX an A for arrogance on this one.

    Polk planners also lost no time in announcing that they are throwing more millions of dollars at CSX for future road “improvements” north of the facility. Where is the money coming from asked one resident? Stand by Thompson Nursery Road for the mother of all truck traffic.

  6. On Wednesday, August 13, the Regional Planning Council held their collective noses and passed the DRI study onto Winter Haven with the approval of Mr. English. So much for Mr. English’s concern for the residents of Lakeland.

    A DRI is supposed to mean a Development of REGIONAL Impact study. As it turned out, the DRI process was twisted and distorted to become a Development of South Winter Haven Impact study as NO regional impacts were permitted in the study. Transportation was a pure white wash. The DRI study would have failed miserably if roads outside a 3 mile radius would have been studied. In other words, the DRI was a costly farce that CSX put over on the taxpayers of Florida. If you’re keeping score, you have to give CSX an A for arrogance on this one.

    Polk planners also lost no time in announcing that they are throwing more millions of dollars at CSX for future road “improvements” north of the facility. Where is the money coming from asked one resident? Stand by Thompson Nursery Road for the mother of all truck traffic.

  7. “JD Alexander/Bob Gernert Memorial Freight Superhighway and Truck Stop”
    This is informative – clearly backed up with maps and factual information.
    Thank you Mr. Townsend. Please forward this, as a guest editorial, to newspapers everywhere in Florida.

  8. “JD Alexander/Bob Gernert Memorial Freight Superhighway and Truck Stop”
    This is informative – clearly backed up with maps and factual information.
    Thank you Mr. Townsend. Please forward this, as a guest editorial, to newspapers everywhere in Florida.

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