The question seems simple enough: Is the Florida East Coast Railway bridge over the St. Lucie River safe? But finding the answer, Martin County officials have discovered, is much harder than they thought.
Bridge safety reports are nearly impossible to come by, so observation and memory are about all the Treasure Coast has to evaluate the safety of the St. Lucie drawbridge — a task that has gained importance since private company All Aboard Florida announced it would use the Florida East Coast Railway tracks for passenger rail service. All Aboard Florida plans to run 32 passenger trains a day across the more than 100-year-old trestle bridge, increasing the raising and lowering from 18 times a day to 50 times a day.
Work already is underway on the company’s first phase, between Miami and West Palm Beach, and service north of West Palm Beach — through the Treasure Coast and on to Orlando International Airport — would begin in the first quarter of 2017.
But that work does not include improvements to the St. Lucie drawbridge, and Florida East Coast Railway will not release safety reports despite multiple requests from Treasure Coast government officials, including the Martin County Commission and the Martin Metropolitan Planning Organization, as well as Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers..
Any bridge safety reports are proprietary information, according to Debra Phillips, spokeswoman for Florida East Coast Railway.
“We do routine bridge inspections all the time,” Phillips said. “We typically do not share them.” The bridge’s most recent inspection was conducted Dec. 12 when the bridge’s locking mechanism failed, Phillips said.
Under Federal Railroad Administration regulations, railroad owners must establish annual inspections, ensure their engineers and inspectors meet minimum qualifications and conduct special inspections after severe weather or other incidents. The FRA does not collect inspection reports. Rather, it creates regional models that predict locations where accidents are likely to occur, then audits the inspection reports maintained by railroads at those locations.
Audited railroads that are found not to have a bridge management plan can be charged up to $17,000; other infractions, such as not reporting dangerous conditions or not retaining records, carry penalties ranging from $2,500 to $17,000, according to the FRA.
It’s unclear if the St. Lucie bridge has had its safety reports audited in the four years since the FRA implemented new standards, but it’s “highly unlikely” it hasn’t, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Michael Cole.
Some Treasure Coast officials question Florida East Coast Railway’s status as a private company, which gives the railroad its proprietary claim: Florida East Coast Railway’s sister company, All Aboard Florida, has requested a $1.6 billion federal loan to build its passenger rail service along Florida East Coast Railway’s tracks.
It’s this public-private muddle that has Treasure Coast officials like Martin Metropolitan Planning Organization Director Beth Beltran frustrated.
All Aboard Florida’s $2.25 billion project would affect the public realm, including Stuart homes and businesses and the Okeechobee Waterway — of which the St. Lucie River is part — so the public has the right to know if the bridge can handle the increased traffic, Beltran said.
“If a safety report exists and (Florida East Coast) is not releasing it, you think, ‘Oh my God, there could be something really bad, that’s why they won’t release it.’ Or, it could be the report doesn’t exist because they haven’t been doing regular inspections — that’s equally scary,” she said. “You wonder who’s providing oversight.”
To get an idea what the bridge has survived over the past 100 years, you have to go underwater, said Jensen Beach diver John Yukus.
“Just look at the concrete. It’s all smashed up,” said Yukus, a former inspection contractor for Florida East Coast Railway. “It’s been repaired many times, but it’s never been upgraded since the day it was built.”
The bridge cannot handle the increased traffic, Yukus said.
“It’s not that they don’t keep up with it, it’s just that it’s old,” he said. “It’s like any outdated infrastructure. It’s safe and sound until it collapses.”
Florida East Coast Railway requested about 15 inspections because of barges colliding with the bridge during his 20 years working for the company from 1985 to 2005, said Yukus, president of the now defunct Advanced Diving and Salvage Corp.
“It does get hit quite a lot,” he said. “There are big heavy barges coming through the river, and it’s the narrowest passage to the Intracoastal (anywhere) across the state.” Barges unfamiliar with the bridge proceed through it slowly, and are swept into the bridge by a crosscurrent, Yukus said.
“The wise ones take it extremely fast,” he said. During his inspections, Yukus observed shattered and splintered pilings, which were replaced.
With passenger rail the stakes are higher, Yukus said.
“You’re transporting human lives, not coquina rock,” he said.
Cole emphasized that safety is a top priority for the railroad administration.
“We maintain a robust oversight and enforcement program for each railroad’s the bridge management program,” Cole said.