This Train Service Won't Amuse Boaters

By Nicole Palya Wood

Train traffic is about to boom in Florida, creating a safety hazard and obstructions for the hundreds of boats a day needing bridge openings between Miami and Orlando.

Photo of the rail bridge over St. Lucie RiverThe railroad bridge pictured, which crosses the St. Lucie River
near Stuart, will most likely see delays. (Photo: Capt. Chris Yacht Services)

The new way to get to the Disney attractions may not amuse all boaters, particularly those who enjoy boating on Florida's Loxahatchee, New, or St. Lucie River. A private company called All Aboard Florida (AAF) plans to build a passenger rail system to move people 235 miles from Miami to the Orlando theme parks, adding 32 daily trips to tracks that currently carry freight across bascule bridges or drawbridges on these rivers. They will utilize current CSX and Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway tracks, and build new rail capacity and stations in Fort Lauderdale as well as West Palm Beach. Led by former 30-year Disney Company veteran Donald Robinson, AAF claims the project will boost the economy and relieve congestion without leaving a negative environmental footprint.

For regulatory and planning purposes, the project has been divided into two phases: Phase I to provide rail service from West Palm Beach to Miami; Phase II to extend service to Orlando and the Disney theme parks, as well as to the Orlando International Airport. At the heart of the matter for boaters will be trying to navigate through these rivers with an increasing number of railway-bridge closures each day. This will result in much longer queues at bascule bridges that already have traffic issues, and more difficult situations for boats under tow and in queues.

"It's not just the issue of traffic at the bridges," said Larry Acheson, owner of TowBoatUS and Offshore Marine Towing in Pompano Beach, Florida. "What AAF needs to realize is we only have about 30 minutes of slack water, four times a day, when the tide is neither pulling you out of, nor pushing you into, the bridge. It's dangerous for boats in the queue, as well as boats under tow." Compounding the challenge, currents up to 4.5 knots are common on the New River.

Post-Panamax Freight Infusion

The problem isn't just the AAF trains competing for time on the tracks between Miami and Orlando. The CSX and FEC railroads already carry freight on these lines that would need to be shared with high-speed passenger traffic. Complicating the equation, in Central America, the expansion of the Panama Canal, which will add two new locks and double the amount and the size of international shipping traffic travelling back and forth between Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is scheduled for completion in 2016. The new, much larger ships that this expansion will spawn (built to the giant "Post Panamax" size limits) will head up to Miami and Port Everglades, the first deepwater U.S. ports on the Atlantic side. It's estimated that this will double the freight loads over the railroads by 2016, the same year AAF plans to open. More rail traffic means less open navigation for boaters.

Bridge Openings

The three drawbridges that will have the most impact on boaters will be on the Loxahatchee River near Jupiter, on the New River just east of the Marshall Memorial Bridge in Fort Lauderdale, and on the St. Lucie River north of Arbeau Point in Stuart. In a November 2014 white paper issued by the Marine Industries Association of Florida (MIAF), an alternate plan was suggested to AAF that would have realigned the course of the passenger trains west by utilizing existing CSX railroads and avoiding the crossings on the Loxahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. However, the AAF isn't pursuing this option.

The New River Bridge is of particular concern because, even as far back as 2009, studies show it was closed for six hours a day due to rail traffic. Recent cameras installed at the bridge on the St. Lucie River indicate that in a 53-day period, 12,784 boats crossed under the bridge; an average of 243 per day needed bridge openings — almost double the number (157) than AAF claimed in their 2014 Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Map of the New River Bridge areaThis bridge on the New River has only four feet of airflow when closed and has regular currents up to 4.5 knots.

Economic Driver? Or Drag?

There are also questions of sustainability and of economic impact. AAF states that their rail project will be a job creator and benefit the environment, creating 10,000 full-time jobs between 2014 and 2016 as well as stimulating the economies near the new stations. AAF, owned by Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), also starts the project owning 200 miles of the track and having Orlando ranked as the most visited U.S. city in 2013. Add to these assets, their roster of so many former staff from the successful Disney attractions and resorts, AAF may just have the expertise to make the project profitable.

However, other companies and cities have attempted to establish new American commuter or passenger rail service — such as Portland, Oregon, and Nashville, Tennessee — with disappointing results. Randal O'Toole from the Cato Institute claims that no North American rail-transit system covers its operating costs. According to O'Toole's report, Defining Success, The Case Against Rail Transit, Tennessee spent $41 million in 2006 to start the Music City Star to bring commuters into Nashville. By 2008, train fares paid by passengers only covered 15 percent of the annual $4.1 million operating costs. In Portland, the number of transit commuters declined from 2000 to 2007, by about 1,000 commuters, while the number of folks driving to work still grew by 66,000.

You don't often hear about rail failures because those built with federal grants or loans must either succeed in funding themselves over a prescribed time frame, or return the money to the federal government. Instead of returning funds, failing or underperforming city and regional rail projects have used state or local taxpayer money to subsidize their programs.

Map of the St. Lucie River near Stuart FloridaBoaters have to navigate both a road drawbridge and a railroad bridge when traveling this section on the St. Lucie River in Stuart.

Although the AAF is a private entity, the project is relying heavily on a $1.6 billion loan from the Federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program. If a lack of ridership or an underestimation of operating costs leads the program to underperform, the AAF rail project could become another drain on the Florida taxpayer. However, the distinction that AAF is a private company could protect the local taxpayer from carrying that burden.

Project Status

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Phase II of the project in September, and set a 75-day comment period for interested parties to weigh in and hold public hearings. The statement provides four alternatives for the addition of the 168.5-mile section linking West Palm Beach and the Orlando theme parks. The FRA has given a green light on Phase I of the project linking West Palm Beach and Miami. In November 2014, BoatUS submitted regulatory comments to the FRA, and engaged BoatUS members to express their concerns about navigation obstruction, as well as suggesting alternate plans that could reduce the traffic and drawbridge closures.

BoatUS Government Affairs contacted AAF representatives to get more answers about the following: 1) why AAF isn't pursuing the option that would put the path of the trains west of two of the bascule bridges; 2) how AAF estimates of potential ridership were estimated; 3) whether any of the new intermodal stations are being developed with federal funding or loan guarantees; and 4) what types of full-time jobs will be created in the 10,000 number AAF estimates between 2014 and 2016. The spokesman for AAF would not address these questions, but did provide the following statement, "All Aboard Florida has been working and meeting with the stakeholders from the marine industry since the project's inception in an effort to understand their concerns and identify solutions that would allow both marine and rail to co-exist. AFF is committed to working with the marine industry and has already taken major steps to address their concerns ... We remain committed to working with all stakeholders as the project progresses."

The Coast Guard is charged by law with providing reasonably free, safe, and unobstructed passage for waterborne traffic, and has the final say on how the navigational impacts must be managed. The USCG surveyed boaters in late 2014, held public meetings on this issue in November, and provided their findings to the FRA. 

Nicole Palya Wood is a former member of our BoatUS Government Affairs team.

— Published: February/March 2015

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