Virgin Train

After much debate, the City Commission majority offered its support for a taller, doubletracked railroad bridge

STUART – The City Commission wavered between the public benefit of a taller St. Lucie River railroad bridge and most residents’ aversion to a planned high-speed railway before ultimately voting 4-1 to support a Virgin Trains request of Rep. Brian Mast for help with grant funding on its construction.

Commissioner Kelli Glass-Leighton cast the lone dissenting vote on the resolution, insisting that railroad officials first educate the public on the new bridge, which would utilize four 80-foot towers to lift the drawbridge span 18 feet above the surface of the river. That vote came on the heels of her own failed motion to require Virgin Trains Vice-President Rusty Roberts to come to Stuart so city residents could both hear about and opine on the company’s latest proposal. Virgin Trains, formerly known as Brightline and All Aboard Florida, had initially decided to refurbish the current drawbridge built in the late 1930s and leave the Stuart area as the only section of the proposed railway on the Treasure Coast without double-tracking.

“They’re looking for public funding, and our public knows nothing about this,” she lamented. “I just think they need to come in town and put a workshop on or just do something other than meeting with us.”

Commissioner Glass-Leighton subsequently turned that into a motion, which was seconded by Commissioner Eula Clark and elicited further explanation from City Manager David Dyess on Mr. Roberts’ previous local efforts to garner support for the new bridge.

“I know he’s done it for the Marine Industries, but I’m sure he’d be happy to come discuss it or show what they’re talking about presenting,” he said. “Just for the education of the audience, this is a federal grant, and those federal dollars are going to be distributed somewhere. So, having them in our community is probably better than having them in someone else’s.”

The opposing commissioner agreed that funding should come to Stuart but not at the expense of public ignorance.

“I’m all for the money coming here,” she insisted. “However, I think this is a huge impact to us [and] our town, and I think our citizens need to see what the plan is.”

City Attorney Michael Mortell then emphasized the resolution currently before the Board had nothing to do with the actual grant application that Virgin Trains would eventually seek through Rep. Mast.

“This is not an agenda item to actually apply for any money whatsoever,” he said. “What they’re asking for is a resolution simply supporting the idea that the community is in favor of looking at a new bridge. If a grant is actually applied for, it would either be applied for by Martin County or by the city commissioners, and it would actually require an agenda item. You guys would have to review it and make sure that it met the standards of the city and was providing a public purpose.”

Mr. Dyess then told commissioners the grant-funding timeframe would be too tight to schedule a Virgin Trains presentation before the company’s planned meeting with Rep. Mast in the nation’s capital.

“From my understanding, they’re going to be doing this presentation on the 17th [of December] in D.C., so time is part of the issue,” he said.

Commissioner Mike Meier then admitted he would not support the opposing commissioner’s motion on the floor.

“I agree with Commissioner Glass-Leighton in the idea of increased transparency and having Virgin Trains come and present to us, but I can’t vote in support of this generalized support resolution for that presentation first,” he said. “I think, if the commissioner was willing to amend her motion to say yes to this but that we also reach out to staff to schedule that presentation in the meantime, but I won’t be able to vote in favor of waiting on the resolution.”

Commissioner Glass-Leighton balked at that suggestion, however, and her motion failed 2-3, with Mayor Becky Bruner and Commissioners Merritt Matheson and Meier dissenting.

Commissioner Matheson, who’d expressed his support for the new bridge prior to the failed vote due to its backing by the Marine Industries Association of the Treasure Coast, then made a motion to send Virgin Trains a resolution of support, which was seconded by Commissioner Meier.

“I don’t want this vote to be misconstrued as us allowing the train to come or anything, and I know none of us up here are doing that,” he insisted. “The Brightline in and of itself is an incredibly tough pill being forced upon us to swallow, but I look at this possibility as a glass of water to help us swallow that pill.”

Seminole Street resident Armond Pascual was the first of three members of the public commenting on the resolution and vehemently opposed supporting the new bridge.

“Keeping the old bridge slows that train down considerably, reduces noise, reduces confusion, reduces everything,” he exclaimed. “This new bridge is going to make it 10 times worse. By supporting this resolution, you support the bridge, you support the train, and the people don’t support you.”

On the other hand, Flamingo Avenue resident Helen McBride told the Commission she visited Miami frequently and that her adult son uses Brightline to travel back and forth between his Miami home and Fort Lauderdale office.

“They love this train, they think it’s great,” she said of her son and other Miami residents. “You know it’s the future – we thought the trains were long gone, but they’re back. If we can’t stop it, [then] let’s make sure we get what we want out of it.”

Right before the vote, Commissioner Glass-Leighton’s made a last-minute plea for postponement of the resolution by insisting “the City of Stuart’s name will be going on the application for the bridge.”

Mr. Mortell immediately debunked that claim.

“This resolution doesn’t do that,” he responded. “This resolution just says the City of Stuart supports the reviewing and the study of the feasibility of it [and] not for the grant.”

Commissioner Matheson’s motion then passed 4-1, with Commissioner Glass-Leighton dissenting.

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