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Fort Pierce gains support here for Brightline station

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of December 28, 2023)

Long the most anti-train county on the Treasure Coast, much of our community appears to be having a partial change of heart  – but not yet a majority of the County Commission.

When Brightline announced in October that its Treasure Coast station would be in either Martin County or St. Lucie County – not in Indian River – it was as if a lightbulb lit above the heads of some government officials and business leaders here.

They suddenly saw clearly advantages of convenient access to a modern, high-speed train that could whisk Vero residents to Miami or Orlando – and Tampa, if Brightline’s dreams come true – and help bolster the economy of the region.

And they knew if there was only going to be one stop along the Treasure Coast, they wanted it in Fort Piece, where the city and a private developer who says his project is fully funded are competing to build a station.

“Stuart is too far away to be used by people from Vero,” said Vero Beach mayor John Cotugno. “Fort Pierce is much closer to our city and south county and would be a great option for residents traveling to Orlando.”

Stuart is 42 miles from Vero Beach via I-95, or 33 miles – and about 50 stoplights – south on U.S 1. Either route is a solid one-hour drive, longer at peak morning and afternoon commute times. That is not much shorter than the hour-and-a-half drive from Vero to Orlando International Airport.

“Downtown Fort Pierce is located just 13 miles from Vero Beach and the presence of an inter-regional train station will stimulate economic growth in our area,” Vero city manager Monte Falls wrote in a letter to Brightline supporting a Fort Pierce train station location.

“It would attract businesses, create job opportunities, and boost local commerce. Moreover, it would make our community more accessible to tourists, fostering tourism and increasing revenue for local businesses.

“The train station would also serve as a business corridor connecting professionals within Vero Beach with counterparts and partners in all of South Florida and Central Florida,” Falls’ letter continued.

“The Brightline trains have direct access to Orlando International Airport and access, with convenient connections, to the Palm Beach International Airport, Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airport. Having that level of access from a station just 13 miles south of our city will provide a significant convenience for our residents, businesses, and visitors’ domestic and international travel.”

“The Cities of Fellsmere and Sebastian [have also] ... expressed their strong support for a Brightline passenger rail station in Downtown Fort Pierce,” Kaitlyn Ballard, marketing and communications manager for the City of Fort Pierce, wrote in an email to Vero Beach 32963.

Both cities sent enthusiastic letters of support to Brightline, backing the bid for a Fort Pierce station.

“A regional train station would enhance our transportation infrastructure, providing a more efficient and reliable mode of travel for residents and visitors alike. This would not only reduce traffic congestion but also contribute to a cleaner environment by promoting the use of alternative modes and public transportation,” Sebastian mayor Ed Dodd wrote in his letter.
The letters were included in the proposal the City of Fort Pierce conveyed to Brightline Friday afternoon along with more than a dozen other similar messages from governments, councils, businesses – and one major league baseball team – in the three-county region.

But there has been nothing other than the soft sound of crickets so far from Building A at the county government center where the Indian River County Commission holds its meetings.

“It is time for our county commission to stand up – or suck it up – and offer their support for [the good] of our citizens,” said Keith Kite, a Vero Beach commercial real estate broker and hotel owner who is a member of the county Tourism Development Council.

Kite wants a Fort Pierce Brightline station for many of the same reasons expressed in the letters mentioned above but thinks Indian River County’s support should go beyond a statement.

He would like to see IRC county commissioners join with St. Lucie County and Fort Pierce to secure federal railroad infrastructure grants to help fund either the City of Fort Pierce’s station plan or the station proposed by Dale Matteson, president of Audubon Development, which is building the King’s Landing mixed-use project in Fort Pierce.

Vero Beach and Indian River County have a long history with the Florida East Coast Railway and related railroad enterprises. Vero exists where it is because it was laid out and developed along the railroad, which was the most viable and reliable means of transport on the east coast of Florida in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As recently as 12 years ago, the county commission was firing off letters of support for Amtrak expansion, angling for a train station in Vero Beach.

But the Indian River County Commission opposed the highspeed rail project originally called All Aboard Florida, and battled it for years in court, spending millions of dollars on lawsuits that all eventually failed.

Whether the current commission, which has three new members since the Brightline legal tussle, is holding a grudge or maybe thinks its support would alienate the railroad company is unknown.

Commission Chairman Susan Adams and commissioners Joe Flescher, Joe Earman and Deryl Loar did not respond to phone calls or emails asking whether they support a Fort Pierce station that residents here could use or if they plan to take any action such as issuing a letter of support or seeking grant money.

Commissioner Laura Moss said she wasn’t ready to throw her support behind a Fort Pierce station because she still holds out hope for a station in Vero Beach.

Moss, who served on the Vero Beach City Council before being elected to the county commission, notes that Vero never took a position against the train.

“We were like Switzerland,” said Moss, adding that she had in-person meetings with Brightline officials as recently as 2020, that give her reason to hope.

“It has been a long and winding road with Brightline and we are not at the end of it yet,” she said, noting this clause in the company’s request for proposals: “Brightline may, at its sole and absolute discretion reject any and all parts of any and all proposals; re-advertise this RFP; postpone or cancel at any time this RFP process; or waive any irregularities in this RFP or in the proposals received as a result of this RFP.”

Kite, meanwhile, said he is “more optimistic than ever” that there will be a Fort Pierce station that is handy for Indian River County residents.

Brightline is contractually obligated under the terms of a 2018 legal settlement with Martin County to complete a Treasure Coast train station by 2028.