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All Aboard Florida passenger train could double bridge closures

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A study by All Aboard Florida that predicts how much the bridge over Ft. Lauderdale’s New River would be closed once its new high-speed passenger rail begins exceeds the time the marine industry says it can live with.

The Marine Industries Association of South Florida hosted a discussion on the proposed rail service in early October, noting that the industry would prefer no more than 20 minutes of bridge closures per hour, about what it experiences now with the current freight traffic.

But adding 32 passenger trains to the FEC tracks — one in each direction from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. — means that bridge will have to close more often, even if the trains cross at the New River, as AAF and FECI executives say they will.

According to data All Aboard Florida (AAF) submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration, current trains cause the bridge to be down for more than 20 minutes during 15 workday hours (6 a.m.-9 p.m.) a week.

With AAF passenger service, that triples. Trains will cause the bridge to be down more than 20 minutes during 46 workday hours a week.

The Federal Railroad Administration released its draft statement on the environmental impacts (DEIS) of the passenger rail All Aboard Florida in mid-September. Its analysis of bridge closures of the railroad bridge over the New River shows more closures (30 a day instead of 16 now) but each lasting less time (12-13 minutes instead of 18-20 minutes now).

Despite speedier closings, the number of minutes the bridge would be in the down position would be about an hour more during the week (360 minutes or 6 hours now to 414 minutes or 6.9 hours with AAF) and about two hours more on weekends (197 minutes or 3.3 hours without passenger rail versus 314 minutes or 5.23 hours with it).

“The question is, how can we co-exist?” said Phil Purcell, MIASF’s executive director. “We can’t risk what we have here.”

AAF is a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries. Florida East Coast Railway is also an affiliate of FECI and owns the existing railway infrastructure. AAF has an exclusive deal with FECR to operate its passenger service.

AAF wants to offer 32 round-trip trains between Miami and Orlando between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. The trains would be about 900 feet long and travel from 79 to 125 miles per hour, blocking an intersection for less than 1 minute at a crossing.

But the river bridge is a different story. AAF says it will have between one and three closings an hour (most hours, between one and two) at a cycle time of 12-13 minutes. That time savings over the current closings comes from mechanical improvements to the bridge and something called Positive Train Control, a monitoring system that includes a GPS chip in every train to know the speed and distance to the bridge so they can time closings more accurately.

“We’re shooting for the bridge to be open 40 minutes an hour, 75 percent of the time or better,” said Husein Cumber, FECI’s executive vice president of corporate development.

AFF also has made several concessions to minimize impact on navigation on the New River, including making the New River ground zero for its schedules. That means it plans to have trains pass each other on the river to require half as many closures.

AAF also will pay for a bridge tender to be on site at the river bridge. While this bridge tender will not operate the bridge (that will still be done from Jacksonville), the tender will have override ability in case of an emergency. The tender will also have the ability to communicate with approaching trains and mariners to provide real-time schedules.

A schedule of bridge closures will be posted online and in a mobile app so that mariners will know when the river will be blocked.

“All Aboard Florida is committed to mitigation measures that enable the marine industry to know when the bridge will be closed and for how long,” Cumber said.

Despite that, industry business owners are still concerned. Large yachts are best towed on a slack tide, which only occurs four times a day for about 30 minutes between the tide changes. Two of those, of course, are at night, leaving only about an hour of ideal towing time for large yachts on the river.

Even more of a concern is the projected increase in freight traffic as larger ships call on the Port of Miami and Port Everglades. The average number of freight trains per day is expected to increase from 14 in 2013 to 20 in 2016 when AAF’s service is expected to begin. The average length of freight trains is also expected to increase to 8,150 feet, as will the speed, from an average of 23 mph now in Ft. Lauderdale’s Broward County to 38 mph.

“What is the corridor capacity?” one attendee wanted to know.

“There is no answer to that,” said Michael Reininger, AAF’s president and chief development officer. “It’s related to any number of factors, including the number of trains, the type of trains, the speed, the number of stops, the number of tracks. It’s an impossible question to answer.

“But none of this matters,” he said. “You want the bridge open and we want to move our trains. We have to find a way to do what we have done for the past 100 years, to share a resource that neither of us own.”

The key concern for marine industry business owners is minimizing impact on the navigation of the river so that yachts that visit the area’s refit and service yards upstream do not get frustrated and take their business elsewhere. The DEIS says the project will not result in any business or job losses.

The project still needs approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The USCG initially scheduled dates and times where the public could submit written comments, but so many wanted to provide verbal comments that they were postponed until larger spaces could be secured. As of press time, the meetings had not been rescheduled. The public comment period closes Dec. 3.

AAF is hosting a public meeting to collect comments on Oct. 28 at the Broward County Convention Center from 3:30-7:30 p.m.

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com.

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