The Biscayne Times

Aug 11th
A Bridge Too Far? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
January 2020

Commuter rail plans hit an obstacle in Fort Lauderdale

WBridge_1hen the Florida East Coast Railway’s drawbridge in Fort Lauderdale is in the up position, the New River is a busy thoroughfare for vessels of all shapes and sizes.

But when that rail bridge is down as trains approach, those same vessels are left twisting in the currents. The bridge is only four feet above the water when it’s closed, which doesn’t leave enough room for even a jet-ski to pass beneath it.

For decades the rail bridge just west of Andrews Avenue lowered only for freight trains that usually ran at night. That changed in 2018, when Brightline, a private train service that will soon be rebranded as Virgin Trains USA, started running on the tracks. Now the bridge lowers as many as 34 times a day, at all hours, for both freight and passenger trains, and it’s frustrating boaters.

“They [boaters] have to wait 45 minutes or however long, because if there are two trains, it backs up,” says Mike Johnally, an operator at Riverfront Marina. “Sometimes you have 20 boats waiting on [the west side] of the bridge.”

But the Florida East Coast Railway’s New River Bridge isn’t just an obstacle for Fort Lauderdale boaters. It’s also an impediment for Tri-Rail Coastal Link that South Florida elected officials hope will someday operate along an 81-mile segment of the FEC tracks between Miami’s downtown and Jupiter. That’s because when Tri-Rail Coastal Link does finally start, as many as 100 trains a day will use the FEC train tracks. Bowing to the concerns of the marine industry and the U.S. Coast Guard, the Florida East Coast Railway capped the number of trains traveling over the bridge at 36 trips a day.

In short, Tri-Rail won’t run north of Fort Lauderdale along the FEC tracks unless there’s a new method for at least some trains to cross the New River.

“We need [new] infrastructure for it to work,” says Phil Purcell, CEO of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. As things stand now, Purcell says, the drawbridge has become a detriment to an industry that has a $9 billion impact on Broward County alone.

Bridge_2On January 2, the Florida Department of Transportation was scheduled to release a study on what sort of infrastructure should be used to accommodate commuter trains traveling past the New River, confirms FDOT communications manager Guillermo Canedo.

That report won’t recommend that the current “bascule bridge” (drawbridge) be replaced. Instead, it’ll advocate three possible bridge plans and a tunnel option. “If a new crossing option is constructed, it will be for passenger trains only and the freight trains will continue to use the existing bascule bridge,” Canedo states in an e-mail to the BT.

It hasn’t been determined who will pay for these capital improvements. It’s also unclear if the FEC Railway is interested in such a project, or if it will even allow commuter rail. “Permission to use the corridor for commuter rail is required -- this has not happened,” Canedo states. “Secondly, funding sources to maintain commuter rail along the corridor have not been defined.”

The Florida East Coast Railway and Virgin Trains USA did not return messages from the BT by deadline.

Scott Wyman, chief of staff for Fort Lauderdale’s mayor, says the railroad will sit down with city, county, and state officials “in the coming weeks,” once the report is out. “It is supposed to look at the costs-benefits-detriments of each option,” Wyman states.

Tri-Rail has operated along a state-owned set of railroad tracks west of I-95 since 1989. Overseen by the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA), Tri-Rail has 18 stops between Miami International Airport and Magnolia Park in northern Palm Beach County.

Bringing Tri-Rail, or another commuter train service, to the FEC tracks east of I-95 has been pushed by local officials for years as a viable transit alternative for people living and working east of I-95. Should it ever become reality, Tri-Rail Coastal Link will operate at as many as 28 stops. Tri-Rail will use a platform at Virgin MiamiCentral in Park West; within Miami-Dade, additional stops are being proposed for Midtown, the Little River-Little Haiti area, North Miami, North Miami Beach, and the Ojus area west of Aventura.

Bridge_3In contrast, Brightline only has three stops located in the downtown areas of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, although the company’s owners -- Fortress Investment Group and Virgin Trains USA -- want to build additional stations at PortMiami, Ojus, Boca Raton, Orlando’s airport, Disney World, and Tampa. (Virgin Trains USA has already finalized deals to build stations at Ojus and Boca Raton, and aims to start transporting people to Orlando by 2022.)

Brightline/Virgin charges more than Tri-Rail, too. As of January 1, a one-way Tri-Rail ticket ranges between $2.50 and $8.75, while monthly passes range from $100 to $155. Brightline/Virgin was offering one-way tickets between $11 and $60 when the BT reviewed its website on December 20, while a monthly pass was offered at $298.

The New River isn’t Tri-Rail’s only barrier. Virgin Trains USA and the FEC Railway won’t have a federally mandated safety feature called Positive Train Control set up along the tracks until December 31, 2020. That means Tri-Rail won’t be able to operate at a platform within MiamiCentral until sometime in 2021. The Tri-Rail station at MiamiCentral is considered a critical first step toward establishing the service along the FEC railroad tracks.

Besides the PTC delay, the Regional Transportation Authority still doesn’t have a dedicated funding source for Tri-Rail’s expansion, nor does it have permission to operate the commuter train north of NE 71st Street in Miami.

The New River will be a tricky hurdle to overcome. Purcell of the Marine Industries Association says the current bridge should be replaced with something that is 55 feet above the water, just like the I-95 bridge that also spans the New River. That will require the tracks approaching the bridge to be elevated as well.

Fort Lauderdale’s mayor, Dean Trantalis, suggested a tunnel. Purcell likes that idea, too, but fears it may be more expensive than elevating the tracks, which the boating advocate estimates could cost around $500 million.

A new drawbridge over the New River is long overdue, Purcell stresses. He points out that the current drawbridge was built in the 1970s. That bridge replaced a narrow, 1920s-era single-track drawbridge, says Seth Bramson, a Miami Shores-based historian who has written books about the FEC.

Purcell says he thinks Broward County should use part of its one percent sales tax transit fund to help pay for a new bridge or tunnel. Miami-Dade and Palm Beach should contribute funds as well, he adds.

But Andrew Frey, Miami-Dade’s representative to the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, opposes his county contributing any funding until there’s an agreement for Tri-Rail to operate north of the New River.

“I don’t think there’s any reason for us to pay for any upgrade unless we knew for certain that we would benefit from it,” Frey says. “I’m not going to pay to fix up your house because someday I might buy it.”


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