Talking with people who make their living based on boats and many quickly mention what they think is the biggest threat to their livelihood -- a bridge. That single bridge crosses the New River near downtown Fort Lauderdale. Florida East Coast Railway operates the bridge, which handles freight traffic now. However, with All Aboard Florida's plans to run passenger rail service from Miami to Orlando over the same tracks, South Florida's marine industry worries what that rail traffic could mean for the flow of its business on the water.
For the better part of two years All Aboard Florida and representatives of South Florida's marine industry have been talking about how to deal with this pinch point where the boating business and the effort to build passenger rail service come together. The current bridge was built in 1978, although a railroad bridge has crossed the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale since 1912. It's a single leaf bascule drawbridge that runs 60 feet shore-to-shore. When not in use, the bridge defaults to its up position, allowing marine traffic to float upriver to the many marinas lining the shore of the South Fork of the New River or down river to the Intracoastal.
A five-month trial period of new rules for the bridge ended Oct. 16. The test included two big changes: Instead of its being operated remotely, a full-time tender on sight operated the bridge, and the bridge couldn't stay down for more than a total of 60 minutes of every two-hour period.
A draft environmental review a year ago of the entire All Aboard Florida route by the Federal Railroad Administration found a third of the economic value of Broward County’s marine industry uses the New River. That's $1.8 billion dollars worth of activity, supporting more than 9,000 jobs, according to the report.
All Aboard wants to run passenger trains across the bridge each day starting late next year. The 2014 report concluded "the project is not anticipated to result in adverse economic impacts to jobs, economic growth, and development conditions.”
But the marine industry disagrees.
"There are plenty of other places in the nation where you have railroads, you have interstates and you have boating. They key is wanting to have a solution," said Kristy Hebet, COO of Ward's Marine Electric and immediate past president of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. "This train isn't here for one year and the marine industry isn't here for one year either."
In a statement emailed to WLRN, All Aboard Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Melissa Shuffield acknowledged the economic power of the marine industry in South Florida. She said, "Along with help from our engineering team and the marine industry, the Coast Guard has evaluated the operations plan and we've implemented improved standards at the New River."
The current freight train traffic can close the bridge to boats up to 14 times a day. All Aboard Florida plans on running 16 round-trip passenger trains from Miami to Orlando beginning in late 2016. The train service expects northbound and southbound trains to cross the bridge at the same time, reducing the number of times the bridge will be lowered, closing the river.