A plan to significantly increase high-speed rail traffic between Miami and the Orlando International Airport could result in increased bridge closings, which would severely affect the many South Florida service and repair yards upriver of the bridges.
The All Aboard Florida proposal calls for 32 passenger trains a day — 16 in one direction and 16 in the other — to run over 195 miles of Florida East Coast railroad track between Miami and Cocoa, where it will then turn west to Orlando. Those passenger trains would share the same track with freight, which is expected to increase significantly once the ports of Port Everglades and Miami are updated to handle the larger Panamax container ships that will be moving through the expanded Panama Canal.
By some estimates, the combined effect of the FEC/AAF plan would be a five-fold increase in passenger and freight traffic.
The marine industry is rightly concerned that the combination of increased passenger and freight trains could essentially keep the rivers closed for long periods during the daytime, hurting the many yards and related businesses west of the bridges.
“There’s only so many minutes in an hour,” says Charles Thayer, a longtime boater and semiretired banking consultant who lives in Palm City, Fla. A staunch opponent of the plan, Thayer says he has closely read the AAF documents.
“Best case,” says Thayer, “it closes the rivers for 56 minutes out of an hour.” And, he adds, “If you can’t get to the front door of a business, it can’t stay open.”
The issue is one of both commerce and safety. A new study by economist Thomas J. Murray, commissioned by the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, puts the total economic impact from recreational marine in the tri-country area — Broward, Dade and Palm Beach — at about $11.5 billion in fiscal 2014, including 136,000 jobs.
The majority of boatyards in Broward — the county that contributed the lion’s share of gross marine sales in Florida — are west or upstream of the FEC bridge over the New River. The other key rivers affected would be the St. Lucie and the Loxahatchee.
“It’s a big concern,” says Jeff Erdmann, a broker with Allied Marine/Ferretti Group and director of public affairs for the Florida Yacht Brokers Association. Worst case, Erdman says, “You could derail the yachting capital of the world with train traffic.”
AAF is a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, which is owned by the hedge fund Fortress Investment Group, according to Florida Not All Aboard, a grassroots organization that opposes the plan.
The Coast Guard was holding public hearings on the issue as Trade Only went to press.
Opponents of the AAF plan say the Coast Guard needs to establish a safe, realistic and predictable amount of time that the bridges are open each hour. The period must be long enough, they stress, to allow for safe passage of the wide variety of vessels that transit the rivers, especially those being towed. It also has to take into account variables such as wind and current.
“It’s a safety issue,” says Stuart Dodd, a city commissioner in the town of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, who also runs a business that maintains 15 yachts between 40 and 80 feet. “Anything over 100 feet normally has a tug at each end.”
Shorter openings, he predicts, will create a “scramble” among the boats waiting to get through. “It’s an accident waiting to happen,” he says.
The city commissioner says he’s all for compromise, but adds that the current proposal is anything but fair. He says it could close the rivers for as much as 50 minutes each hour, jeopardizing 18,000 marine jobs west of the bridges.
“It’s going to cripple the marine industry if the bridges are closed for as long as they’re asking for,” Dodd says.
The increased passenger train closings are one concern, but critics say an increase in freight traffic — freight trains are longer and slower — might in time pose an even greater risk.
Dodd and others argue that freight traffic should be moved west of the bridges and away from the center of cities and towns, where it creates noise and safety issues beyond the ones that affect the marine industry.
“We don’t need freight going through town centers,” Dodd says.
The current proposal from All Aboard Florida needs to be derailed. And the Coast Guard needs to broker a workable agreement that keeps the waterways open long enough for all vessels to safely transit the rivers. It makes sense economically and it makes sense in terms of safety.
It’s crucial we make our voices heard on this topic and time is of the essence.
The comment period on the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the All Aboard Florida project ends Dec. 3. Send your comments to the Federal Railroad Administration by email to the attention of John Winkle at AAF_comments@vhb.com.
Or send by mail to: John Winkle, Federal Railroad Administration, 1200 New Jersey Ave. S.E., Room W38-311,Washington, DC 20590.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue and was updated to reflect information on the comment period, which ends Dec. 3.