Florida boaters flood Coast Guard with comments on bridge openings

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The Coast Guard gathered around 3,000 comments in hearings in November about the navigation needs of mariners at three railroad drawbridges that run over the New River in Fort Lauderdale, the Loxahatchee River in Jupiter and the St. Lucie River in Stuart, according to Barry Dragon, chief of bridge administration for the Seventh Coast Guard District.

Half to two-thirds of those comments registered concern with the All Aboard Florida high-speed passenger service proposed for the 128.5-mile Florida East Coast Railroad corridor from Miami to Cocoa and a new 40-mile east-west rail corridor on state-owned right-of-way from Cocoa to Orlando. But Dragon said that wasn’t the hearings’ purpose. The purpose was to gather information on how mariners use those waterways and what their “reasonable navigation needs” at the bridges are — today.

“The hardest part was getting mariners to tell me what their needs are, not what they think about All Aboard Florida,” Dragon said.

The hearings — held Nov. 12-14 in Hollywood, Jupiter and Stuart — were in response to mariner complaints about long and/or unscheduled railroad bridge closures at those locations when completion of the preliminary environmental impact statement for AAF pushed the proposed rail service — and the impact of 32 more passenger trains a day — to front and center. However, Dragon said at this point it is uncertain whether AAF in its current iteration will get the Federal Railroad Administration’s nod. If the service does get approval and AAF decides it wants to change the drawbridges’ schedules, it will have to ask the Coast Guard for the changes to each bridge.

The district commander can decide the changes are unnecessary and deny the request. If it appears the changes are reasonable, his staff can undertake formal rulemaking to implement them, which would require public hearings. Dragon said Coast Guard hearings on AAF will come only when and if AAF moves forward with a plan to change the scheduled openings of the bridges for the high-speed trains.

In the meantime, he said, information gathered at November’s hearings will be analyzed to see if the reasonable navigational needs of mariners are currently being met at those bridges. The Guard will talk to the FEC — the bridges’ owner — to see what its needs are right now. Then bridge administrators will meet with the Captain of the Port, and if he decides the bridge opening schedule needs to be adjusted — and he may not decide that — the Coast Guard will post a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register, giving all parties a chance of comment on the proposed changes. An interim rule will follow, allowing yet more comment, and then a final rule.

“They’ll get two more shots at anything we decide to do,” he said.

Dragon notes that the Coast Guard is supposed to try to balance the needs of maritime and land transportation at the bridges, “putting together a schedule that works for both,” he said. For mariners, the biggest issue often is knowing the schedule of closings and knowing that the railroad will keep that schedule so waterway users can schedule their movements up and down the river accordingly. Mariners “don’t want to be guessing” when the bridge is going to be down, Dragon said.

Under the Rivers and Harbors Act, first adopted in 1824, anyone proposing to build a bridge over navigable waters must obtain a permit from the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard, which was given the job of permitting bridges in 1967, is tasked with protecting the reasonable needs of public navigation on navigable waterways.

“ ‘Reasonable needs’ are the key words,” Dragon said.

An in-depth story about the proposed railway and its impact on marine businesses appears in the January issue of Soundings Trade Only.

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