Is it worth up to $1,000 in city money to get Amtrak’s attention for 20 seconds, tops? Bunnell’s mayor and three commissioners think so. It’s also a done deal, following the commission’s vote to add the spending to its agenda Monday night, shortly before approving it.
A little background to put the commissioners’ enthusiasm in context: Amtrak is thinking of restoring passenger rail service between Miami and Jacksonville, which hasn’t been available since 1968. On Saturday, the company is running a “one-way inspection trip” over the old Florida East Coast Railway to, in Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman’s words, “explore opportunities for future partnerships with the state of Florida” to resume service on the route and connect it with Amtrak’s long-distance lines.
Local county and city officials will board the special train beginning at 8:30 a.m. in Miami, picking up more officials at nine more stops–including West Palm Beach, Melbourne, Daytona Beach and St. Augustine–as it makes its way to Jacksonville.
The train will pass through Bunnell–at 45 miles per hour. It isn’t stopping there. Bunnell city commissioners are doing all they can to change Amtrak’s mind. The rail line has invited two representatives from Bunnell (just two) to be on the train, as long as they board it somewhere south of the city. Bunnell commissioners are holding a special workshop today to come up with a plan to convince Amtrak to stop in town, and to do so not just Saturday, but to make Bunnell part of the permanent stops if and when passenger service resumes. “We’re contacting anybody and everybody to see if we can get that stop in Bunnell,” City Manager Armando Martinez said. But he noted that people in charge of the project are resistant to a Bunnell stop.
Commissioners agreed to spend up to $1,000 in city money to buy two big banners and other mega-size party favors to display downtown along the train’s route in hopes of catching riders’ attention when it comes through Saturday. They want fire trucks, police cars, tow trucks, children, older residents and anything that makes a visual splash to (safely) surround the tracks as the train rattles through. By the time they were done talking up the event Saturday, which, should the short train travel at its normal speed, should last all of 20 seconds, they’d talked up cooking 80 hot dogs the city had left over from previous events and turning the occasion into a brief carnival. No one mentioned when, exactly, the train is scheduled to show up. Amtrak isn’t known to follow German-style precision scheduling.
Elbert Tucker Dissents[media id=11 width=250 height=100]
One commissioner wasn’t thrilled by his colleague’s open-ended spending spree that could reach $1,000 for less than a minute’s worth of fleeting attention-grabbing. He wasn’t opposed to grabbing the train riders’ attention or even spending some money. But he voted against the measure because it didn’t set a specific amount, and something less than $1,000.
“A thousand dollars for a banner? I don’t think so,” Commissioner Elbert Tucker said. “They put no amount on it. I don’t do that. You go buy something, sky’s the limit? Well, no, you have a certain amount you’re going to spend.” He added, “I don’t like the idea of spending $1,000 for a banner that somebody is going to see on one side of the train and not the other side of the train.”
This from someone who may well remember the days when the FEC Railroad, as it was then known, rumbled through Bunnell, bannerless–and often passenger-less.
In 1957, the rail line known as the Florida Eastern Corridor Railroad stopped at 86 stations between Jacksonville and Miami. In July 1968, the Florida Public Service Commission–not Congress, not Amtrak, which wasn’t created until two years later– voted 2-1 to end the Jacksonville-Miami route, which made one round trip per day, six days a week. There was, the commission claimed at the time, “an abundance of other modes of transportation.”
Detroit’s Big Three auto companies, together with rubber and tire companies, engaged in the 1950s in fierce lobbying to end federal and state railroad subsidies and push more people to drive. It worked.
Since 2001, state transportation officials have been trying to reverse course and re-start passenger rail service along the Eastern seaboard. They got nowhere during the Bush administration, which was no more friendly to mass transit than GM, Chrysler and Ford were in the 1950s. The Obama administration is a different story. The $787 billion economic stimulus package passed in February 2009 included $8 billion for mass transit, including bullet and commuter trains. The Florida Department of Transportation has been busy applying for its share–$2.5 billion for the first leg of a proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train. In January, Obama was in Tampa with half that money to kick off the line. Florida also got money to start the SunRail commuter line between Poincianna and DeLand.
For a few dollars more, Bunnell has a banner’s crack at a train stop.