By Sun Sentinel
The old railway bridge over the New River in Fort Lauderdale has emerged as the latest flash point in plans to launch high-speed passenger rail service from Miami to Orlando.The marine industry insists All Aboard Florida's trains will keep the low bridge down too long, choking access for boats and damaging a key industry in an area known as the yachting capital of the world. A draft study by the Federal Railroad Administration found that the new trains will have a negligible effect on boating.
But elected officials, local residents and the Marine Industries Association of South Florida are mobilizing to find ways that both boats and trains can thrive, spurring development and jobs — if that's at all possible. Mary Sessions of Fort Lauderdale has rounded up more than 1,000 signatures of local residents on a petition calling for the New River bridge to be built higher to accommodate more boats and for freight traffic to be moved farther west away from urban clusters.
The Marine Industries Association is asking All Aboard to keep the bridge open at least 40 minutes per hour and to take other measures, such as publishing train schedules, to safeguard the viability of their industry.
All Aboard Florida aims to take 16 trains each way daily on Miami-Orlando routes using Florida East Coast Railway tracks, crossing over numerous bridges, through city centers and rural areas. Advocates say the trains should cut highway traffic, spur downtown development, add jobs and boost tourism.
But the rub comes over the 1970s-era bridge that when closed at higher tides sits only about four feet off New River waters, making it hard even for a kayaker to comfortably pass underneath.
lRelated Traffic changes ahead as All Aboard work begins
To limit disruptions, All Aboard vows to coordinate schedules with other trains, publish timetables, produce an app and take other steps to keep the New River bridge open at least 30 minutes per hour on average. It also will invest in new equipment, helping cut average crossing times from 18-20 minutes to 10-12 minutes, said P. Michael Reininger, All Aboard's president and chief development officer.
The company also has agreed to add a "tender," or specialist for bridge openings and closings, on site.
But there's no way to keep the decades-old bridge open for 40 minutes every single hour and still provide reliable freight and passenger train traffic there, Reinenger said. During many morning and afternoon hours, the bridge will need to host two train crossings and occasionally three, he said.
That's not good enough for the Marine Industries Association, which represents an industry with an estimated economic impact of $8.8 billion per year in Broward County. About one-third of its business comes from the New River, especially for repair and service of mega-yachts.
The association worries that mishaps with increased use of the middle-aged bridge could block boat access on the river even more than planned. It's especially concerned, because the draft study by the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees railways, underestimated the heft of the marine industry and did not consult the industry for its study, said Phil Purcell, the association's executive director.
"They weighed our industry wrong. How can we rely on them to know that All Aboard can perform effectively or to tell us when we can access our businesses?," said Purcell. "It's not fair."
Purcell's group is among dozens that sent comments to the Federal Railroad Administration on their draft study covering All Aboard. Comments are due by Dec. 3, with the agency expected to issue its final report early next year.
Rep, Frankel wants the Coast Guard, which governs the waterways, to weigh in and keep navigation viable in Fort Lauderdale and other river crossings by train, including the Loxahatchee in Jupiter. The Coast Guard took part in the draft study and separately is looking at existing river bridge operations.
"I'm not trying to stop the train or start the train," Frankel said in an interview. "I do think there is potential for this train to get people off of I-95, to modernize our transportation system, help develop some areas and bring tourism. There are a lot of pluses.
"But with all that said, what you don't want to do is harm a very, very important industry to Florida — a $9 billion economic engine," Frankel said. "They [marine industry people] do want to live in coexistence and make it a plus-plus situation."
Fort Lauderdale resident Sessions and fellow petitioners see a longer-term solution — a higher bridge that could accommodate passenger trains and also let most boats pass underneath without opening, plus a transfer of freight west to different tracks.
"Freight is really good for the state," Sessions said. "But we believe freight needs to be moved west, possibly along the U.S. 27 corridor, somewhere to take it away from cutting the municipalities in half."
She and other residents also are concerned about delays for street traffic, including emergency vehicles, moving east and west across the tracks in congested parts of Fort Lauderdale.
But building a bridge 45 feet above the New River likely would cost at least $66 million and take years for approvals and construction, according to Florida Department of Transportation reports. That bridge could handle passenger trains, which are lighter and scale inclines, but could not accommodate heavy freight trains.
Moving freight west, meanwhile, would require coordination with private track owners and with the private businesses that move the cargo, including many that like eastern tracks that link directly into seaports.
Sessions and her group sent their petition to the Federal Railroad Administration, which has been considering an application for a loan of $1.6 billion to help All Aboard finance its project. All Aboard also is pursuing U.S. Department of Transportation approval to issue "private activity bonds" worth $1.75 billion that would mobilize private — not government — money. A $1.75 billion bond issue would end the need for a government loan, Reininger told a Sun Sentinel editorial board meeting.
In its final study, the Federal Railroad Administration will detail those steps All Aboard must take to mitigate the effects on the community, including the New River.
The Marine Industries Association has a long list of recommendations, including a "tender" authorized to operate the bridge as needed, penalties for unscheduled bridge closings and even creation of a fund to compensate for bridge failures or other interruptions to waterway use.
Without greater safeguards, the association sees a decline in business and in property values of the marinas and boatyards on the river. Mega-yachts could go elsewhere for repair, for example.
"We want to find a solution, but not at the risk of our industry," Purcell said. "This is a mobile business."