Time-out needed on All Aboard Florida

Publish Date: 
Sunday, November 23, 2014 - 6:45am

Sun Sentinel

All Aboard Florida prepares sites for new stations in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, a troubling standoff has emerged over the New River Bridge, a tension that must be resolved before this promising passenger-train service moves farther down the tracks.

Concern about the train has been brewing all along, of course, within Broward's marine industry, which creates about 110,000 jobs and has an annual economic impact of $8.8 billion.

Marine leaders believe the New River Bridge will become a life-threatening bottleneck if closed 30 minutes per hour to accommodate the 32 long-distance passenger trains planned daily by All Aboard Florida. Already, the bridge closes 14 times per day to let freight trains cross, a number expected to grow to 20 by 2016. And there's talk of adding 25 to 30 commuter trains to the rail corridor, too.

The problem is that when the span is lowered to let trains cross, the clearance below is no more than four feet high, often so tight that a kayaker must lean sideways to pass beneath.

Now consider that worldwide, one of every two boats over 80-feet long is sold out of Fort Lauderdale. And about 75 percent of the boatyards that service these boats are upstream of the New River Bridge.

cComments

Brought to you by the same Media and Democrat Party that railroaded Obamacare through. Wait until that train wreck falls fully on your head after Obumbler stops delaying its implementation. They should both be destroying your life by 2017 at the latest.
HARCOURT FENTON MUDD
AT 6:35 AM NOVEMBER 23, 2014

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"If the bridge is closed 50 percent of the time, you will wipe out our industry," Phil Purcell, executive director of Marine Industries Association of South Florida, told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board. Association President Kristina Hebert, chief operating officer of Ward's Marine Electric, concurs.

To prevent catastrophe, industry leaders say the bridge must remain open at least 40 minutes per hour.

But the railroad says that for its business to work, the bridge can remain open only 30 minutes per hour, and the two industries must share the asset equally.

"There are 60 minutes in an hour and 40 is more than half," Michael Reininger, All Aboard Florida's president told us. "We physically cannot operate the railroad in a reliable and efficient manner — and provide the services we need for the two railroads (freight and passenger) — and have the bridge open 40 minutes of every hour."

As it stands, the railroad has the upper hand, given that it's already received the green light from the Federal Railroad Administration for the project's first phase between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

However, after being ignored in that review, the U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for ensuring the navigability of waterways, has decided to weigh in.

The Coast Guard told us it has some concerns about the train's impact on boaters at the New River Bridge, the Loxahatchee Bridge in Jupiter and the St. Lucie River Bridge in Stuart. The latter two bridges will be affected in the train's second planned phase, from West Palm Beach to Orlando.

If the Coast Guard believes boating interests on a busy river will be hurt, it could require the bridges be kept open longer.

So at the moment, the Coast Guard is the maritime industry's best chance to mitigate potential peril.

Against this backdrop, questions are being raised about some of the numbers in the federal study of All Aboard Florida's first phase.

No matter what the numbers say, Purcell says, the marine industry has a bigger impact on Florida — and our region — than the upstart railroad service, which suggests it will have a $6.4 billion economic impact statewide. Purcell also says his association was never consulted by federal reviewers.

The federal study reveals surprising numbers about area roads, too. In the case of Broward Boulevard, for example, it suggests vehicular traffic is dropping considerably. In fact, the trend line shows zero traffic on Broward Boulevard by 2035.

Does anyone believe that?

Greater scrutiny of the environmental impacts is absolutely needed by South Florida transportation experts.

Still, recognizing there's a lot to like about All Aboard Florida, maritime leaders have been working quietly and cordially with the train operators in a search for solutions.

And to its credit, AAF has agreed to hire a tender for the New River Bridge, though this person will only open the bridge in cases of emergency. It's also promised to add signage and a smartphone app to communicate closure times. It's agreed to improve efficiency in how it raises and lowers the bridge. And it's agreed to time its north- and southbound trains to cross the bridge at about the same time to minimize disruptions.

But given the concerns raised by a pillar regional industry, and the bigger picture emerging about future traffic on this urban rail corridor, All Aboard Florida's fast-track plan needs a timeout.

We encourage the Coast Guard to hit the pause button. And before making any more big decisions, federal railroad officials should fully answer questions being raised during the public comment period, which has just two weeks left.

Without question, All Aboard Florida is an exciting project that will create a new way for Floridians to move. We want it to succeed.

But given the concerns of so many, let us proceed down this track not only with a spirit of compromise, but with our eyes wide open.