The Coast Guard has required the Florida East Coast Railway to place a full-time tender on its drawbridge over Fort Lauderdale’s New River and plans to require tenders at the railroad’s bridges over the St. Lucie River in Stuart and the Loxahatchee River in Jupiter to ease boat-traffic tie-ups on the South Florida rivers when freight trains cross.
“We want to provide for the reasonable needs of navigation, and by doing that balance the needs of both trains and boats,” says Barry L. Dragon, director of the 7th Coast Guard District’s bridge program. The challenge is identifying those reasonable needs and where that balance lies, he says. “That’s my target.”
The New River bridge tender is a temporary pilot program that began in April and will be in place until Oct. 16. The Coast Guard is asking mariners to give it some time to work, then submit comments about how it’s doing to Federal Register docket number USCG-2015-0271.
The comment period runs for 90 days from the date that the notice appears in the Federal Register. As of early May, the notice had not been posted.
“This is a paradigm shift — a sliding schedule [of train crossings], not a posted schedule,” Dragon said at a May 5 meeting hosted in Fort Lauderdale by the Marine Industries Association of South Florida.
The bridge has a 4-foot vertical clearance and remains open unless a train is coming. Mariners can talk to the tender on VHF channels 9 and 16, or by phone at (305) 889-5572, to find out when the drawbridge will close for the next train. They also can see when the next train is coming on a clock posted on the bridge that counts down to the next closing.
The bridge will continue to be controlled from Jacksonville, but the tender can communicate with dispatchers and bridge operation controllers in Jacksonville and ask a train to slow down or even stop to let boats through before closing if that seems reasonable under a given set of circumstances, Dragon says.
The tender also can alert towboat operators with large yachts in tow and 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.
The temporary rule requires the bridge to remain open to boat traffic for 60 minutes of any 120-minute period after 12:01 a.m. The Federal Register notice says the changes address the “inability of the bridge owner, FEC, to [equitably] operate the bridge under current regulations.”
The assignment of a tender is a response to hearings last fall that queried mariners about bridge operations and drew 3,000 comments, many of them complaining about erratic train schedules and long delays at the bridges.
One of the MIASF’s biggest concerns, which it expressed at the hearings, was lack of effective communication with boaters, who need to know when the bridge will be closed and for how long, says Patience Cohn, the MIASF’s industry liaison. “That’s the main thing we want to fix — communications problems,” Dragon says.
“This [temporary rule] will improve communications with the FEC and the mariner, increase the amount of time the bridge is open and will promote equal usage of waterways and railroad for all parties involved,” the Federal Register notice says.
Dragon says the changes do not directly address All Aboard Florida, the high-speed passenger rail service that proposes to operate hourly from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. — 16 trains in each direction daily, a total of 32 — on the FEC railroad’s tracks between Miami and Orlando, although they do lay the groundwork for optimizing communication as traffic grows.
“I can’t fight All Aboard Florida,” Dragon says. “The Coast Guard can’t fight All Aboard Florida. All I can do is regulate the bridge.”
That means he can require the railroad to maintain the balance between boat and train traffic and enforce the standard — the bridge being open to boats 60 of every 120 minutes — as the passenger rail service becomes operational.
All Aboard Florida expects to inaugurate the service late in 2016. The task of shoehorning all of those trains onto the railroad’s tracks while maintaining that balance appears daunting.
“All Aboard Florida needs to come up with some infrastructure solutions to avoid doing damage to the South Florida economy and lifestyle,” says MIASF executive director Phil Purcell.
If high-speed passenger service is the wave of the future — and it may well be — the railroad must raise the grade of the tracks, build bridges over major roads and replace drawbridges with ones that have a higher clearance so boat and vehicular traffic don’t grind to a halt, he says.
He says a study also must be done to determine the train traffic capacity of the railroad corridor because that traffic is going to grow rapidly when high-speed passenger trains start running and as freight traffic grows when port dredging is completed and area ports start accepting new maxi-size Panamax ships carrying more containers.
“We can’t let 24 miles of track shut down an industry,” Purcell says.
Dragon says the marine industry and local residents must lobby their elected officials to get those things done while the Coast Guard does its part to keep the drawbridges open to boats.
“Believe me, we are the only ones looking out for you,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue.