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An Archaeological Twist in a Florida Fight Against High-Speed Rail

Excavation at the Vero Man archeological site (Screen grab via Youtube)
Excavation at the Vero Man archeological site (screen grab via YouTube)

The arguments against urban rail are so tired that they’re hardly worth repeating, but here goes: trains are expensive, they’re impractical, they’re noisy.

Now, eastern Floridians who have long been fighting a high-speed rail development in their region have a more compelling case to make. In a 44-page lawsuit filed in a Washington, DC federal court on March 31, Indian River County and the archaeological nonprofit Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee charged that the new rail line would damage two “prehistoric sites of cultural importance,” The Art Newspaper reported.

The first is the Old Vero Man archaeological site, discovered in 1913 by construction workers digging through the Main Relief Canal. An excavation turned up the bones of a man estimated to have lived between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago, as well as the fossils of at least 120 animal species — the area has since been nicknamed “Tarzan Park.” For the past year, archaeologists from Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania have been working at the site, hoping to prove the theory that humans and large prehistoric mammals coexisted.

The second is the Gifford Bones site, where the remains of a prehistoric sloth and mastodon have been found. According to the lawsuit, an early 20th century train station, as well as the historic Hallstrom Plantation, could also be destroyed if the high-speed rail project proceeds.

The plaintiffs accuse the US Department of Transportation (DOT) of failing to follow federal law when it approved $1.75 billion in tax-empt bonds to help fund a private rail line, which will run through Indian River County on its route from Miami to Orlando.

The All Aboard Florida (AAF) project, as it’s called, will see 32 passenger trains transporting commuters between the cities at speeds of more than 100 miles an hour. On its website, AAF says the trains will take 3 million cars off the road and reduce consumption of oil and gas. Construction has already begun on the first stretch, between Miami and West Palm Beach.

The lawsuit alleges that the DOT acted illegally when it approved the bonds before a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was issued — a draft EIS has been submitted, and AAF has said it will soon release the final version. It asks that the court halt the injunction of bonds until the environmental review is completed.

If the lawsuit proves successful, it won’t be the first time that archaeological excavation has slowed or stopped rail development. For the past decade, Rome has been trying to add a much-needed subway line, but repeated excavations have delayed the project and forced some stations to be scrapped altogether.

An aerial image from AAF's preliminary environmental impact report depicts the location of Vero Man relative to the rail line (Screen grab via )
An aerial image from AAF’s preliminary environmental impact report depicts the location of Vero Man relative to the rail line (screen grab via Federal Railroad Administration)

It’s not clear from looking at the AAF’s route map that the rail line will actually pass on the archaeological sites, and an aerial image from the draft EIS seems to suggest otherwise. The lawsuit states that the sites are within or “adjacent to the railroad right-of-way.” It also mentions “the same concerns other All Aboard Florida opponents have brought up, such as the noise pollution and potential traffic issues” — which seem irrelevant to the case.

It’s worth noting that high speed rail has been heavily opposed in the area. Just 20 miles south of Indian River County, Martin County recently passed a resolution that would allocate $1.4 million to legally fight the AAF project. A group called Citizens Against the Train (CAT) has also launched a Change.org petition to stop the project that, as of this writing, had garnered over 21,000 signatures. Coincidentally, Randy Old, the Vero Beach city councilman who ran for office last year partly on his stance against high speed rail (and who has spoken at a CAT rally) also chairs the Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee, which filed the lawsuit along with Indian River County.

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