Several new projects are convening on Ft. Lauderdale’s eastern railroad tracks, and the marine industry is poised to make sure they don’t derail South Florida’s yachting industry.
The project getting the most attention is All Aboard Florida, a privately funded project to create high-speed passenger rail service between Miami and Orlando. But even more troubling to the marine industry are the freight trains that will come out of Port Everglades and the Port of Miami once expansion projects in both those facilities is complete.
“We’re worried about the cumulative impact of all of it,” said Gene Douglas, vice president and general counsel at Bradford Marine. “All Aboard Florida is only one part of it. We have to look at the impact of all of it on the marine industry.”
The marine industry’s main concern is the FEC railroad bridge that crosses the New River in the heart of downtown Ft. Lauderdale, the entryway to the majority of the area’s refit and repair yards.
An increased number of trains — passenger and freight — means the 36-year-old, slow-moving bridge would be in the down position more often. (Just how often, no one is quite sure yet.) When down, it has a vertical clearance of just 4 feet, forcing all but the smallest dinghies to stop.
“As this thing comes to life, I don’t think anyone understand the real impact,” said Phil Purcell, the new executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. “All we can hope for is influencing how long will it be open each hour.
“People, the people stuck in their cars at the crossing, they’re stuck,” he said. “They live here, they work here. But the marine industry is mobile. If we make it too inconvenient, they will take their vessels someplace else.
“But we’re not going to burn Rome down, either,” Purcell said. “We want to be more thoughtful than that and take a professional, leadership role. We know the FEC bridge will impact our industry, but first we need to know how much it’s going to be open, not how many trains cross it.”
While the impact on the marine industry has the potential to be catastrophic, no one expects it to get that far. City and county officials as well as All Aboard Florida executives have all said in news reports that they don’t want to hurt the marine industry, a $7.4 billion economic engine for Broward County, home to where Ft. Lauderdale, Dania Beach and Pompano Beach.
The question then remains, how much impact will it have?
It’s still too early to tell, said Barry Dragon, chief of bridge operations with U.S. Coast Guard District 7, which covers all of the southeastern United States. AAF is still in the permitting stage for dozens of bridges it must build, rebuild or renovate along its 240-mile route between Miami and Orlando. The route follows the FEC track up the east coast to Cape Canaveral and then turns west to Orlando. AAF must lay that east-west portion of rail — about 40 miles — as well as build a bridge over the St. Johns River.
All of that means details about the bridge in Ft. Lauderdale is still about a year away.
“They really don’t know what their schedule is going to be, … but we’ll make sure there’s minimal disruption to the waterway,” Dragon said. “ We’re protectors of the marine industry. We are going to have more rail traffic, of course, but we’re going to do our best to minimize the impact to the waterway.”
The rail crosses 32 waterways on its way to Orlando, including the New River and the Okeechobee waterway, two federal ATON (aids to navigation) projects.
The railroad bridge was originally built in 1912, but rebuilt in 1978. According to a study done by Gannett Fleming in 2009, the bridge closed 11 times a day for about 20 minutes each time, on average.
“We’ll come to a happy medium,” Dragon said. “By happy, I mean nobody’s going to be real happy, but times have changed. And you can’t forget this is a private project. They’ve spent lots of money and have lots of influence, and they have spent no taxpayer dollars on this.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to roll over on it,” he said. “Everybody’s going to feel some pain. We’ll try to make a schedule and put it out for public input. That’s the best we can do. We won’t know that for at least a year.”
From the marine industry’s perspective, the next year can be spent being prepared for that public input. First on Purcell’s list of things to do is present the marine industry as the economic engine it is, not only in how many boats it handles and the money those vessels bring to the city, but also in how many jobs rely on those boats and what might happen to those jobs should the vessels leave.
“The ‘yachting capital of the world’ is not about the relative size of the boat; it’s about the goods and services that this areas is a leader in the world for,” Purcell said. “We need to tell that story, the story about the welder, the carpenter, the plumber. We own the middle class job market in Broward County. Let’s not risk it.”
He had a meeting in late February with politicians around South Florida with the Broward County Metropolitan Planning Organization, which looks at transportation issues countywide, and said he hoped it would fund a study that will look at all the proposed rail traffic and their impact on not only yachting, but traffic, real estate and quality of life.
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.