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Opposition Mounts Against Florida Rail Bridge Plan

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Stitched Panorama

The Marine Industries Association of South Florida is urging the region’s marine interests to tell the Federal Railroad Administration that they are not at all on board with the proposed All Aboard Florida high-speed passenger rail service from Miami to Orlando.

The service, which would start in Miami and end at Orlando International Airport with intermediate stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, threatens to tie up boat traffic at three South Florida bridges over waterways that are the lifeblood of an industry that generates annual wages totaling $4.1 billion and delivers a gross output of $11.5 billion a year in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

“Seventy-five percent of South Florida’s recreational vessel repair facilities are upstream from the bridges to be used by [All Aboard Florida],” a MIASF white paper said of the $1.5 billion “express” rail service proposed for 195 miles of the Florida East Coast Railroad corridor from Miami to Cocoa and a new rail corridor on state-owned right of way along east-west Route 528 from Cocoa to Orlando.

The MIASF is urging businesses and their employees to comment on the proposal as presented in an environmental impact statement dated in September.

Comments can be emailed to John Winkle or posted by regular mail to John Winkle, Federal Railroad Administration, 1200 New Jersey Ave., SE, Room W38-311, Washington, D.C. 20590. Comments must be received by Dec. 3.

The MIASF’s analysis said the impact statement understates the effect that more bridge closings resulting from more trains will have on boat traffic at the railroad bridges on the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale; the Loxahatchee River in Jupiter; and the St. Lucie River/Okeechobee Waterway in Stuart.

“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 it open only 30 minutes,” the paper said.

All Aboard Florida proposes to operate hourly service from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., with 16 trains running in each direction daily — a total of 32 a day — and that does not include freight trains from the ports of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and other cities that use Florida East Coast Railroad tracks.

In a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration, MIASF president Kristina Hebert said a 2009 study of rail traffic in Broward County showed that freight trains already shut down the New River Bridge for six hours a day.

”Our concern is that the additional proposed rail traffic of 32 passenger trains per day, combined with the planned increased freight traffic generated by the new intermodal in Miami, as well as the on-dock transfer station in Port Everglades, will combine to create the cumulative effect of virtually closing navigational access to the New River,” Hebert said in the letter.

“We don’t think the failure to put together a [statewide] transportation plan years ago should be allowed to now penalize an $11.5 billion industry that has invested heavily in itself and built itself into one of the major players in the South Florida economy,” MIASF executive director Phil Purcell said.

The MIASF white paper said the impact statement is deeply flawed. Besides underestimating All Aboard Florida’s effects on boat traffic, its preparers failed to consult the marine industry, clearly did not understand the industry and “completely missed” its economic significance and impact.

It said the impact statement also fails to address raising the bridges or using alternative routes — options that would mitigate the clash between trains and boats and move the trains further inland, where they would avoid affecting the marine industry and coastal towns. It said the impact statement also fails to assess the capacity of the Florida East Coast Railroad corridor, a study that must be done sooner than later to understand future rail impacts on coastal Florida.

The MIASF wants the Federal Railroad Administration to require All Aboard Florida to adopt measures to mitigate the trains’ effect on marine businesses, including:

• A tender at the New River Bridge

• Schedules of bridge closings posted at the All Aboard Florida and/or the Coast Guard websites

• Sign, horn or other notification at each bridge to warn of a closing, with countdowns

• Management of train operations to minimize bridge closings

• Coordination between All Aboard Florida and the Coast Guard to promote communication with the marine community about train and bridge operations

• Upgrades of signals and crossings

• A fund to compensate businesses hurt by unscheduled bridge closings

• Fines for unscheduled bridge closings

• Moorings for vessels stopped by unscheduled closings

• A study of future rail corridor capacity.

Marine economist Thomas J, Murray, who authors the MIASF’s economic impact studies, reviewed the environmental impact statement and found flaws in the methodology that its preparers used to estimate the size of the marine industry. Murray said the EIS’s estimate of marine-related economic activity is off by about two-thirds and it completely ignored marinas and storage facilities in its count of marine businesses.

“The EIS misses hundreds of millions of dollars of marine industry economic activity as a result of this naïve oversight,” Murray said.

He said, too, that the EIS’s suggestion that marine activity on the New River represents less than a third of the marine activity in Broward County is an “egregious miscalculation” and fails to take into account how much local marine tradesmen and businesses rely on the river, its marinas, boatyards and boat traffic — megayacht traffic, in particular — to generate business.

“The New River industry is the world’s leading hub for large yacht service and repair,” Murray said. “Just in the past 10 years over 8,000 megayachts have joined the fleet. A large percentage of those come to the New River for annual maintenance and repair, as well as major refitting every three to four years.”

The white paper called for the Federal Railroad Administration to revise the impact statement to reflect those problems before it considers moving forward with the high-speed train service.