John Walker Talks About a Better Vision for Florida All Aboard

Publish Date: 
Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - 7:00am

By John Walker, Guest Columnist TC Palm

Pretend you are a 21st century Henry Flagler looking at Florida from space, planning to colonize this beautiful peninsula with its 1,200 miles of coastline. Would you use up valuable real estate within a few miles of some of the best beaches and most attractive communities anywhere to move freight? Using expensive noisy outdated technology?

No. You would use modern blue-water ocean vessels, the most energy efficient, environmentally friendly, safest way to move freight.

Flagler was a visionary. If he were alive, he would not expand a 19th century railroad with crumbling infrastructure and rusting bridges. That would be investing in buggy-whips. Flagler would be looking for the next big thing. Not the last.

Conventional wisdom says ocean shipping cannot compete against government subsidized rail and trucking. It's time to rethink this. Florida qualifies for federal grants under the American Marine Highway program.

Florida has a robust marine industry. Maritime jobs are highly skilled and pay well. Indian River State College is developing a maritime technology center; Florida Atlantic University has a world-class ocean engineering program with SeaTech. Harbor Branch and Scripps are renowned ocean science centers. Florida could lead the nation in modern ocean transport.

Florida politicians know coastal communities oppose rail traffic. All Aboard Florida is the focus, but freight is a greater threat.

When Henry Flagler built FEC, Florida was a frontier state. Today's coastal Florida is home to 15 million people. FEC moves liquid asphalt and industrial chemicals thorough Palm Beach and Treasure Coast communities. The small town of Lac-M├ęgantic, Quebec, was nearly destroyed when a HAZMAT freight derailed in 2013, killing 47 people. FEC has a good safety record, but accidents happen even to careful operators. HAZMAT is far safer by sea, in specialized coastal vessels like Crowley Maritime operates.

Between Miami and Palm Beach, rail makes sense. Slow speeds reduce odds of accidents. Large fire departments can respond with heavy fire fighting power. Smaller towns from Jupiter north are different.

What does this do for AAF? Assuming FEC is truly serious about the passenger business?

Plenty. AAF gains nothing with Palm Beach and Treasure and Space coasts. It has no passengers here and doesn't want any. We are a long slow zone with high accident potential.

What if FEC trades its ancient rail bed for new limited access corridor? AAF could run high-speed, all-electric European style service, not clackety-clackety diesel-electric trains. This might actually justify a large, federal Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing loan.

A Florida Turnpike line reaches Orlando faster and safer, with less fuel. FECI retains key properties to develop once tracks are gone. A siding complex becomes an office park or entertainment complex.

FEC's corridor goes to state and local governments, who clear tracks and build a greenway. Add the maritime jobs and we get economic growth for Florida, not just Fortress Investment Group.

Bob Solari, an Indian River County Commissioner, recently said, "It will take a good magic trick to make passenger rail profitable along the east coast of Florida."

He's right. Moving AAF to the turnpike corridor and FEC freight to the Florida Seaway is the trick that could make it happen.

John Walker is a Jupiter geologist and Army Special Forces veteran. His background in modern ocean transport comes from work developing large offshore limestone quarries.