Coast Guard Tests Drawbridge Plan for Boaters and Trains

Posted on May 4, 2015

A full-time bridge tender may soon be stationed at Jupiter’s Loxahatchee River drawbridge as the U.S. Coast Guard tests whether manning a similar span in Fort Lauderdale decreases boater backups caused by passing Florida East Coast Railway trains.


The experiment began last week at the New River Bridge where mariners can now call the bridge tender to find out if a train is on its way and whether they should reconsider their departure times.


Barry Dragon, director of the district bridge program for the 7th Coast Guard District, issued the proposal following hours of public meetings with anglers in the fall and a review of 3,000 comments bemoaning wait times at three railroad drawbridges, including those over the Loxahatchee, New and St. Lucie rivers.


The bridges remain in the up position, allowing boats to pass through, but lower when a train approaches. At 90 years old, boaters complain theLoxahatchee bridge can take upwards of 20 minutes to close and reopen, creating a precarious queue of boats waiting to get through.


In addition to the bridge tender, the proposed changes say the bridge cannot be closed more than 60 minutes combined in any 120-minute period, a countdown clock for the next closure will be posted at the bridge, and lights and a horn will be installed to indicate if a train is approaching and the bridge is lowering.


A notice sent by the Coast Guard says the changes “address the inability of the bridge owner, FEC, to operate the bridge under current regulations.”


“This is what would be extended to Loxahatchee and St. Lucie, or something very similar, if it works well with the New River,” Dragon said about manning the bridge. “The New River is narrower and has more boater traffic so if it works there, it should work with the other two.”


Phil Purcell, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, welcomed the addition of a bridge tender at the New River span, but said it is still too early to tell whether the change will help control traffic in the area.


“Since it was just implemented, we have not received any feedback yet pro or con, so we don’t know if it works or not,” Purcell said. “However, in the past there had been no ability to communicate with the bridge, so this is a positive step in a more collaborative direction.”


The test is scheduled to run through Oct. 16, but Dragon said the changes could be applied more quickly to the other bridges if it works. Florida East Coast Railway is responsible for paying for the bridge tender, and other upgrades such as the lights and countdown clock. FECR did not respond to a request for comment.


While complaints about the bridges aren’t new, they didn’t reach critical mass until All Aboard Florida’s plans to run 32 passenger trains per day over the same spans came to the attention of the marine industry.

FEC runs an average of about 14 freight trains daily. But that could increase to 20 by 2016.


Dragon said the proposed changes take into consideration current conditions, but with an eye toward what could come if All Aboard Florida’s project is completed.


“We are thinking about All Aboard Florida but keep in mind the freight trains are two miles long and take much longer to get across,” Dragon said. “All Aboard Florida won’t take as long and it will run on a set schedule boaters can work around.”


Boaters had hoped the Coast Guard would propose changes that would force Florida East Coast Railway to replace or overhaul the bridges to make them faster. All Aboard Florida is promising upgrades and a double track on the Loxahatchee bridge that will allow two trains to pass at the same time.


The Jupiter Inlet District presented an engineering plan last week to increase the 4-foot clearance below the Loxahatchee bridge so that 89 percent of boats could pass under when the bridge is closed. But Dragon indicated in February that he thought boaters and the railroad could be accommodated without bridge construction.


The proposed changes had not posted as of late Thursday to the federal register. Once they do, comments can be made for 90 days under docket USCG-2015-0271.