All Aboard Coast Guard Comments Meeting Draws Hundreds

Publish Date: 
Friday, November 14, 2014 - 5:45am

By Kimberly Miller, Palm BEach Post

‘Bridge rage’ feared if trains backup boaters
It has borne the weight of steam and diesel behemoths for 90 years and given passage to countless souls seeking solace in a fishing lure.
But on Thursday, sailors who have glided through the gate of the St. Lucie River drawbridge described its deterioration and complained the aging span will be a constant barrier to the sea when All Aboard Florida sets 32 additional trains a day on its tracks.

“Here’s the facts,” started Hank Cushard. “At 7:15 a.m., we pulled up to the bridge. It was down. We waited until 8:10 a.m. while two trains went by one way and another went the other way. There were 12 boats waiting behind us and two on the north side. You gotta fix this.”

The bridges, including the New River bridge in Fort Lauderdale and one over the Loxhatchee River in Jupiter, remain open to boaters until a train passes and the span closes for 20 minutes or more.

The Coast Guard cannot order All Aboard Florida to change its project or update bridges, but it can regulate how often and when the bridges must be open to preserve safe channels.

For many at Thursday’s meeting the fear wasn’t just the nuisance of a queue, but the danger of idling in a strong current, “bridge rage” caused by lengthy waits, and ruin of a way of life on the water.

“You go from 10 freight trains to 52 with passenger trains and it’s going to close the river,” said Charles Thayer, who pored over a draft environmental impact statement on the project and wrote his own eight-page analysis. “All I want is the Coast Guard to do what they say they do: maintain safe and reasonable navigation on the river.”

All Aboard Florida maintains it will upgrade the bridges to mitigate wait times.

Standing room only crowd takes part in an information gathering session hosted by the United States Coast Guard at Blake Library ... Read More
Proposed changes to the St. Lucie River bridge include infrastructure work that will reduce the average time the bridge is closed per train to 15 minutes from 20 minutes. But the upgrades won’t increase the seven-foot vertical clearance or 50-foot width of the opening. The bridge will also remain a single track.

Still, with the added trains, the St. Lucie bridge would be closed an average of 9.79 hours per day during the week and 7.63 hours per day on weekends, according to the Federal Railroad Administration draft environmental report.

Because of Loxahatchee bridge improvements promised by All Aboard Florida, closing times will be reduced from 20 minutes to 12 minutes. The average total closure time per day during the week will increase from 5.8 hours to 8.6 hours. On the weekends, that will grow from 3.6 hours to 7.2 hours, according to the environmental report.

All Aboard Florida said it will also make bridge opening schedules available so boaters can plan their trip to avoid backups, and run more freight trains at night.

The promises did little to assuage concerns.

“There are people who can’t navigate this area when it’s clear,” said Casey Cass, president of Florida Marine Contractors Association. “When it’s jammed up, it’s even more difficult. This will result in death.”

Surveys of vessel traffic through the openings were taken during a two- to three-week period in January. The report concluded that the project will not have a significant adverse effect on the marine industry.

But Martin County and the Jupiter Inlet River District took their own surveys and found heavier traffic patterns than what was seen in the three-week survey.

Gene Stratton, a marine information specialist, said the Coast Guard will review the written and oral comments, “digest them,” and decide if rule changes or new regulations are needed. A decision could be made by early next year, Stratton said.

Friday’s Coast Guard meeting for the Loxahatchee River bridge will be at 5:30 p.m. at the Jupiter Community Center, 200 Military Trail, Jupiter
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