Florida averts train-boat conflict

Coast Guard-imposed schedule will enable marine businesses, high-speed rail service to coexist
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Check the website for South Florida’s Marine Industry Day celebration and you’ll find among the sponsorship acknowledgments the logo for Brightline, the new name for All Aboard Florida, the Miami-to-Orlando high-speed rail service that is barreling down the tracks toward inauguration in 2017.

When it was proposed, Broward County marine businesses were ready to declare war on Brightline because it would send 16 passenger trains a day over the Florida East Coast Railway Co.’s New River drawbridge. The industry said those trains would interrupt boat traffic to and from marinas, boatyards and residential docks on a waterway where as many as 14 freight trains a day already use the bridge.

The Coast Guard stepped in as a peacemaker, says Phil Purcell, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida and one of the first to sound the alarm that this new train service could severely affect navigation on the New River.

The railroad bridge, which has a vertical clearance of just 4 feet at high tide, remains open when there are no trains coming so boats can pass. It closes for train crossings, which shuts down the river to just about any vessel bigger than a kayak or a jonboat.

Purcell says the Coast Guard has adopted a “win-win” regulatory regime for the bridge that gives boats and trains equal time to use it. Trains cannot close the bridge for more than 60 minutes during any 120-minute period, and a new full-time tender has been assigned to the bridge as a facilitator to keep traffic moving over and under it.

The bridge is still controlled from Jacksonville, but the tender can communicate with dispatchers and bridge operation controllers in Jacksonville and ask a train to slow or even stop to let boats through before closing if that seems reasonable.

The tender also can alert towboat operators with large yachts in tow and pleasure boaters when the next train will be and how long the bridge will be down so they can plan whether to start up or down the river, find a place along the river to hold up or take a short cruise rather than mill around at the bridge with a lot of other traffic.

With this standard operating procedure in place, Brightline and marine businesses can coexist, Purcell says. Under current use the bridge is closed an average of one hour and 45 minutes during every 12-hour period, the MIASF says.

“We can enjoy the many benefits of the train without other transportation [cars and boats] being impacted,” he says. Brightline “should improve our quality of life, not diminish it.” Brightline officials say they are upgrading landside railroad crossings where needed, adopting safety measures to prevent collisions at crossings and working toward a wait time of less than 60 seconds at the landside crossings.

Purcell says more must be done to prevent clashes between the needs of the railroad and boating interests. As rail and boat traffic grow, railroad bridges will have to be replaced with new ones with higher vertical clearances for boats and road crossings may have to be elevated, he says. “We can solve these problems with infrastructure changes.”

This will require long-term planning and a full-court press to get politicians and transportation authorities to provide the money. When the airport authority wanted to land 747s at Fort Lauderdale’s airport, it lengthened the runways, which took years of planning and budgeting. When Port Everglades decided it needed to dredge its channels to accommodate the New Panamax ships built to transit a wider Panama Canal, it spent years planning and nurturing the political support to fund the project.

“We need to be thoughtful,” Purcell says. “We have to have the right operating procedures [at bridges], but we also need to keep pushing for new infrastructure.”

He says part of the reason for Marine Industry Day is to make people aware of the marine industry, its local impact and what it needs to stay healthy and at peace with other sectors of the South Florida economy, such as Brightline.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.

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