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New River needs new solutions

By Brianna Liestman

All Aboard Florida (AAF), a private company, plans to build a passenger rail system to move people from Miami to Orlando theme parks.

The plan would add 32 daily trips, 16 north and 16 south, to tracks that currently carry freight across the New, St. Lucie and Loxahatchee rivers, utilizing existing CSX and Florida East Coast (FEC) tracks.

As a result, additional openings and closings will occur along those rivers and directly impact boaters. The New River will see some of the greatest impact, as it is a highly commercial river for the boating industry.

“The [New] River is the main artery of the boating industry in Broward County,” said Bob Roscioli, owner of Roscioli Yachting Center in Fort Lauderdale. “Without these boats in south Florida, we would not have the economy we have.”

One reason these plans are of such a huge concern to the boating community in south Florida is the high tides on the river.

“When the tide is relatively high in Fort Lauderdale … you could probably not even get a kayak underneath the railroad bridge,” said Jeff Erdmann, public affairs chief for the Florida Yacht Brokers Association (FYBA).

The existing rail infrastructure is of the greatest concern to the boating community because of the bridge’s open and close speed. Erdmann estimated that it takes 10 to 11 minutes for the New River Bridge to open and close.

Erdmann said that because the bridge closures will be so frequent and lengthy, it would divide Fort Lauderdale in half for the rivers and for additional traffic in the city. Most corridors travel east to west, with many marine repair and storage facilities to the west of the railroad bridge.

AAF has proposed a 30-minute access period for the trains and a 30-minute access period for boaters. Coupled with strong tidal conditions, the marine community in Florida is concerned commercial vessels will make choices to take business elsewhere.

“We’re the yachting capital of the world and business is good … but perception of a train that’s going to deny access or that has inadequate infrastructure could potentially unravel an $8.8 million industry here in Broward Country,” said Phil Purcell, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida (MIASF).

Purcell said the rail capacity needs to be determined for the FEC tracks. Tri-Rail has expressed interest in using the corridor someday, as has a lighter commuter rail. MIASF and other local marine businesses and associations sat with AAF and said boaters need a minimum of 40 minutes per hour to access the river.

“The reason they can’t [agree to this] is the bridge, not because of how many trains at this point but because the bridge and its current configuration can’t operate quickly enough,” said Purcell. “While they’re attempting to make the bridge that’s currently there work quicker, the reality is they’re updating 1960s [or older] technology. … It really requires new infrastructure.”

Roscioli said that the current infrastructure was built in an era when a large boat was 75 to 80 feet, and it is now outdated in an era when a large boat is 130 to 150 feet. If AAF put in a higher bridge, it would solve most of the problems the boating community has with the project.

“If they raised that railroad and put a decent height there that you can get boats underneath,” said Roscioli, “a majority of those boats, 75 to 80 percent of the boats, should be able to get under.”

Purcell said AAF is reluctant to finance the infrastructure but thinks the company should not be considering the cost of updating the infrastructure but the cost of not investing the money to create safe, updated rail bridges that benefit everyone.

Purcell noted that AAF has started a “tremendous dialogue” regarding the transportation needs in south Florida but that the company didn’t offer the solution and is not doing anything beyond what it is legally required.

“We need to work thoughtfully with [AAF] to come up with solutions so that we’re addressing the needs of mass transportation while not affecting people’s quality of life or established economic drivers,” said Purcell. “No one’s trying to stop [the project], we’re just trying to make sure that solutions are put forward and if those solutions can’t be met, then let’s slow [the project] down until they can be met.”

One solution the U.S. Coast Guard has helped establish is the placement of a full-time tender at the New River Bridge. It will be part of a six-month test that will run until October 16, which will ensure that the bridge will be closed for no more than 60 minutes in any two-hour period.

However, Purcell notes that it is still important for the boating community in south Florida to remain part of the conversation on any solutions proposed for rail travel.

“Either you’re at the table or you’re on the menu,” said Purcell. “Our choice is to be at the table, figure out a solution, not just for the marine industry but for the community as a whole.”

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