Skip to main content

Not everyone is aboard Florida’s proposed railway

When Charles Thayer read that 32 passenger trains a day would not impact navigation on Fort Lauderdale’s New River, he was stunned.

With a clearance of just four feet when closed, the New River railroad bridge is a nuisance to boaters, but the All Aboard Florida proposal threatens to make it a liability to businesses.

“Thirty-two trains a day crossing that bridge?” he says. “Why hadn’t I heard about this?”

How could an environmental assessment of the first phase of All Aboard Florida, a proposed high-speed passenger service from Miami to Orlando, conclude that the stretch from Miami to Palm Beach wouldn’t interfere with navigation or require the Coast Guard to weigh in when it would close drawbridges to boat traffic 32 times a day?

AAF, a privately owned “express” rail service proposed for the Florida East Coast Railroad corridor, would run for 128.5 miles on FEC tracks from Miami to Cocoa, then 40 miles west on new tracks built on a state-owned right of way from Cocoa to Orlando.

The trains would operate at speeds as high as 79 mph from Miami to West Palm Beach, 110 mph from West Palm Beach to Cocoa, and 125 mph from Cocoa to Orlando.

As envisioned, those trains would cross slow and antiquated drawbridges spanning three rivers — the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the Loxahatchee River in Jupiter and the St. Lucie River in Stuart. The rivers are heavily trafficked by boaters and are arteries of commerce for the many marinas, boatyards and other marine businesses that have established themselves on these rivers over decades.

Thayer first read about AAF in the spring of 2013, when the Federal Railroad Administration approved an environmental assessment of phase one of the $1.5 billion project and the public — boaters, marine businesses and residents of coastal communities along the route — still had little inkling of the plans for a high-speed train. He set out to find out all he could about AAF and sound the alarm: This will have a significant impact on boaters and boating businesses.

Thayer lived in Fort Lauderdale until 18 months ago, when he moved to a home on a canal in Palm Bay, a mile or so upriver of the FEC bridge over the St. Lucie River. He keeps his 37-foot Duffy lobster boat at the dock behind his house. If the rail service operates as described in a draft environmental impact statement released in September, it will “shut me off from the Atlantic Ocean,” he says. Thayer says it doesn’t take a genius to see this. “We’re talking grade-school math here.”

The passenger trains will run from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. — 15 hours a day. That means two passenger trains will cross the St. Lucie bridge every hour and, according to AAF bridge closings for passenger trains, will average 15 minutes apiece. Freight trains also use the track — 20 a day predicted by 2016, half of them during daylight hours. The bridge is down for an average of 20 minutes for a freight train, but when the latest Panamax freighters, which carry a third more containers than the older ones, start unloading at the ports of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, he figures the length of the freight trains will stretch by a third and bridge closing times will increase to 26 minutes each. 

So two passenger trains per hour closing the bridge for a total of 30 minutes, plus one freight train closing it for 26 minutes during most daylight hours, adds up to the bridge closing 56 minutes an hour, leaving just 4 minutes for boats to transit.

All Aboard Florida acknowledges that there will be more bridge closings and more waits for boaters at those bridges, but using a mathematical model for its calculations — and asserting that installing double tracks over much of the route and coordinating schedules so trains cross bridges simultaneously will reduce closures — it estimates that the bridge over the St. Lucie will be down just 9.8 hours a day, on average.

Thayer doesn’t believe it. He says the consultants who were paid to write the impact statement for AAF came to a predetermined conclusion based on data that AAF supplied. “This has not been a good-faith effort to see what the right thing to do is,” he says. “It was an assignment to justify what they wanted to do.”

More than 10,000 vessels and 26,000 tons of cargo transit the St. Lucie. Much of it is traffic going to or from Florida’s west coast on the cross-state Okeechobee Waterway — tugs and barges, delivery yachts, boats going to and from boat shows, yachtsmen cruising between the east and west coasts.

If the plan goes forward in its present form, Thayer predicts that many boaters who live upriver of the railroad bridge and keep their boat at their dock will have to move them to marinas east of the bridge. “Where are you going to put them?” he asks. Or upriver residents will trailer their boats and launch from ramps on the other side of the bridge. Or maybe they’ll move to another town where it’s easier to use their boat. In any case, he thinks the AAF proposal is an unreasonable interference with navigation.

AAF doesn’t think the situation will be all that bad. Its impact statement says it can prevent some of the waiting at bridges by publishing firm schedules so mariners know when the bridge will close, installing electronic countdown billboards at bridges to tell waterway users how long it will be before the next closing, and putting a bridge tender at the New River bridge to convey information about closings to commercial and megayacht captains, in particular.

Thayer doesn’t think AAF’s calculations are realistic. Giving the railroad the benefit of the doubt, he says its calculations are based on best-case scenarios. He foresees AAF hurting not just boaters, but also businesses upriver of the railroad bridge. “If you close the front door to a business, you can’t keep it going,” he says.

Safety is an issue, too. Thayer says AAF video graphics of the St. Lucie bridge show boats neatly queueing up to go under the bridge.However, he says there are three bridges (two highway bridges and a railroad span) bunched together within a quarter-mile, and boats typically have to wait outside all three bridges when the railroad bridge is down. The horizontal clearance of the three bridge openings is narrow, and the openings are not perfectly aligned. “You can’t see straight through the bridges,” he says. “You can get surprised [by oncoming traffic].”

When the railroad bridge opens, boats jockey for position on both sides to proceed through, creating a dangerous situation.

Herb Ressing, who runs brokerage boats up and down the New River in Fort Lauderdale and used to operate a 46-foot charter sailboat out of Fort Lauderdale, says that on a busy weekend 50 to 60 boats can stack up between the bridge and Andrews Avenue when the span closes. “You’re trying to avoid banging into other boats,” he says. “The little guys are buzzing around. People are getting nervous.”

Many larger yachts — some of them 150 feet or more — navigate the New River with towboats at the bow and stern. When the bridge is down, vertical clearance is just 4 feet. Boat traffic waiting on the downstream side of the closed bridge fights a current that can run as fast as 3 knots, as well as wind, tides and cascades of storm water that periodically flood from an outfall and into the milling area on the bridge’s east side.

The owners of Frank & Jimmie's Prop Shop, two blocks from the Florida East Coast Railway bridge over the New River in Fort Lauderdale, believe the proposal threatens their livlihood.

“You’re in the current, boats in front of you, boats behind you,” says Jimmie Harrison, owner of Frank & Jimmie’s Prop Shop, located just two blocks from the bridge. “Then this [outfall] opens, and it throws you to the other side of the channel, into other boats.” 

Harrison says the Marine Industries Association of South Florida has a video camera trained on the bridge to observe boat traffic during bridge closures. “Boats race for the bridge when it’s going down,” he says. “That happens. We’ve got it on film.” He says that kind of thing is only going to get worse with 32 more closings.

Stuart Dodd, a city commissioner and owner of a small yacht service company in Lauderdale-by-the Sea, says it’s not just one railroad bridge that can cause problems for yachts transiting the New River, but that drawbridge in combination with others that carry vehicular traffic and compound the delays.

The MIASF has taken thelead in critiquing the high-speed train but insists its membership can live with AAF. Done right, it could yield benefits — grow tourism, reduce highway traffic and revive the downtown sections of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, where AAF is building train stations and other retail and hospitality projects. But AAF must adequately address the concerns of boaters, the marine industry and communities that worry about noise, dangerous crossings and traffic tie-ups that come with more trains, the trade group says. “Seventy-five percent of South Florida’s recreational vessel repair facilities are upstream from the bridges to be used by AAF,” an MIASF white paper says. “We understood the goal was to keep the bridges in the open position a minimum of 40 minutes per hour. Now the proposed train schedule will keep them open only 30 minutes.”

That is unacceptable, says MIASF executive director Phil Purcell, and despite what the impact statement says, it poses a threat to the health of a marine industry that generates $11 billion annually in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. “Running trains over the bridge 30 minutes of every hour is literally not allowing our business access [to the river] 50 percent of the time. That’s intolerable,” he says.

Phil Purcell, MIASF executive director, calls the proposal for high-speed rail service 'unacceptable.'

Purcell has two fundamental criticisms of the impact statement. First, the authors did not consult the marine industry, even though it is one of the three pillars of the South Florida economy. (The others are tourism and real estate.) As a result, he says, the impact statement dramatically underestimates the size and importance of the industry and is flat-out wrong when it says AAF will have “no adverse economic impact” on marine jobs, economic growth or development.

Second, the plan has no real vision. It tries to build a 21st century high-speed railway on 20th century infrastructure. “It’s like taking a 1978 Impala, putting some new parts in it and trying to use it as a commuter car when you can buy a Toyota Prius that can do that job better, more quickly and more efficiently,” he says. Purcell challenges AAF to raise the FEC tracks over roadways to minimize the effects on the cities its trains will run through; build new, higher railroad bridges over the rivers so they don’t have to close and back up boat traffic every time a passenger train barrels through; and move freight over inland rails owned by other railroads to reduce the schedule of trains on the FEC tracks.

“All Aboard Florida needs to invest in its infrastructure so it doesn’t do its neighbors wrong,” Purcell says. It can’t build this “visionary” high-speed train system on the cheap without doing great damage to the marine industry and coastal Florida, he says.

The MIASF wants the railroad administration to require AAF to adopt measures to mitigate the trains’ impact on marine businesses, including:

• Employing a tender at the New River Bridge.

• Listing schedules of bridge closures posted at the AAF and/or Coast Guard websites.

• Using signs, horns or other signals at each bridge to warn of a closure, with countdowns up and down the river alerting mariners to how long it will be before the bridge closes.

• Utilizing high-tech management of train operations to minimize bridge closures.

• Mandating coordination between AAF and the Coast Guard to promote communication with the marine community about train and bridge operations.

• Launching upgrades of signals and road crossings.

• Creating a fund to compensate businesses hurt by unscheduled bridge closures.

• Levying fines for unscheduled bridge closures.

• Installing moorings for vessels forced to wait for unscheduled closures.

• Commissioning a study of future rail corridor capacity.

Some high-speed train critics have been disgusted that many of Florida’s political leaders have stood on the sidelines, waiting to see how the wind blows on AAF. “Frankly, it seems to be that some of the politicians are ignoring the public impact this is going to have,” Dodd says. “The EIS is absolutely garbage.”

Construction of high-speed train stations is underway in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, leading many to believe that AAF is a done deal. Purcell doesn’t think so.

Lois Frankel, a Democratic congresswoman who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, has asked AAF to “put on the brakes,” slow down and produce some convincing answers to these questions before issuing the final impact statement. 

“She’s done a real good job,” Purcell says. “She’s neither for it nor against it. She just wants to make sure no existing industry is hurt by running the trains.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott was an early supporter of All Aboard Florida. His chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, is a former executive of a real estate development subsidiary of Fortress Investment Group, owner of the Florida East Coast Railway. Scott has said nothing to suggest that he has changed his mind. Responding, however, to concerns about AAF, he sent a letter to the company’s president, Michael Reininger, asking him to address questions about noise, traffic holdups at road crossings and the effects of the increased train traffic on emergency services. He asked Reininger specifically to look at marine issues.

“The communities surrounding the railroad drawbridges over the New River, St. Lucie River and Loxahatchee River have raised concerns about the impacts from this proposed project,” he told Reininger. “Florida has over a thousand miles of coastline, and access to the water for boating is one of the things that make Florida so special.” He asked Reininger to address those concerns.

U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, a Republican from Brevard County, has asked the federal railroad agency to heed the concerns of counties, municipalities and regional planning authorities along the route. “I believe that the most important thing for the Federal Railway Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation to do as they consider this issue is to give the greatest weight to the concerns of the local affected communities,” Posey told the railroad agency. No fewer than 32 resolutions registering concern about the rail project have been forwarded to the agency by local governments and neighborhood associations, according to Florida Not All Aboard, an organization that has gathered more than 40,000 signatures on a petition calling for AAF to build new tracks west of Florida’s coastal towns to realize its goals.

Frankel and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat representing St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties, have sent a letter to the Florida Department of Transportation asking that it require AAF to work with local governments to seek solutions to their concerns: upgrade rail safety equipment; create “quiet zones” along the tracks; upgrade the railroad bridges; widen the distance between dolphins to allow two-way boat traffic; schedule the trains to mitigate the impact on roadways, waterways and emergency service; move freight west to the CSX tracks; and provide evidence that the high-speed passenger service is financially viable, which many critics doubt. They also have asked the state to help fund some of those improvements.

Although political pressure may force AAF to deal with these issues, the Coast Guard holds the key to making sure maritime concerns are addressed. In a frank discussion with the Palm Beach Post’s editorial board, Gene Stratton, chief of marine planning and waterways management for the 7th Coast Guard District, made it clear that the Coast Guard has the final say on South Florida’s navigational needs. “We have reason to believe the navigation needs on [the St. Lucie, Loxahatchee and New rivers] may not be being met currently by the current schedules, and right now they are only running freight,” Stratton says. “We’re not telling the FEC how to run their trains. We’re saying marine traffic must have access at certain times.”

The Coast Guard held hearings in October and November, asking mariners to fill out surveys to help articulate the “reasonable needs of marine traffic” on those rivers. One very influential voice heard during those hearings was that of Dana A. Goward, a retired Coast Guardsman who was once the nation’s top navigation authority, overseeing the permitting and regulation of 18,000 bridges over the nation’s waterways. Now a maritime consultant, Goward studied all three bridges on behalf of Citizens Against Rail Expansion Florida and found that none of them meets the reasonable needs of navigation. The bridges interfere with a “primary economic engine of the local economy” — boating and marine business — and undermine the foundation on which the water-oriented communities were built.

Goward says there are alternatives available to AAF: using existing railroad bridges farther west and developing a new rail corridor inland — Goward says Florida has been exploring putting in a new rail corridor along U.S. 27 through the center of the state to raise capacity for the region — shipping freight by barge, and replacing the existing bridges with higher ones. If the railroad tried to secure permits for any of the three bridges today, the requests would be denied, he says. Until the bridges are rebuilt to today’s standards, he recommends:

• The New River bridge be open 40 minutes every hour and the Loxahatchee and St. Lucie bridges 31 minutes each hour.

• After a closing, bridges remain open long enough for all waiting vessels to get through.

• Single closings be limited to 15 minutes, and opening times be “highly predictable” and easily understood.

Goward, too, believes AAF is fundamentally flawed. “You can’t run this century’s rail operations on last century’s infrastructure,” he says. The state has a “compelling interest” in protecting its citizens from AAF’s disruptive effects and should make sure the many concerns about the rail plan are adequately addressed, he says. Goward also knows from experience that the Coast Guard has “a lot of discretion” in balancing maritime and land transportation needs. “The public needs to support the Coast Guard in defending the rights of mariners,” he says.

Thayer, while dismissing the impact statement as “embarrassing” and boilerplate nonsense, says he doesn’t reject AAF out of hand, as many in the boating community do. “That’s not my position,” he says.

He’s OK with a high-speed passenger rail service serving the state’s needs. He’s also OK with running freight trains on the coastal rail corridor. “But if they want to run passenger and freight trains on that track [together], they have to respect the navigation of the waterways,” he says. “They’ve not done that.”

February 2015 issue