The Palm Beach Post: All Aboard Florida not the only threat to boaters, advocates say

Posted on April 16, 2015

Palm Beach County’s 40,000 registered boaters are facing a growing threat that could limit their ability to navigate South Florida waterways as All Aboard Florida and other industries compete for access to the water, marine leaders are warning.


All Aboard Florida plans to run 32 trains a day between Miami and Orlando, requiring bridges over waterways in Palm Beach, Martin and Broward Counties to be closed more frequently to accommodate its express passenger service.


Adding to the crunch, the Army Corps of Engineers recently reduced the operating hours for a series of locks along the Okeechobee Waterway, which serves as the main boating corridor connecting South Florida’s east and west coasts.


“My concern is that people don’t look at the Intracoastal as the highway that it is,” said Mark Crosley, executive director of the Florida Inland Navigation District, a special taxing district that oversees the management and maintenance of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. “You wouldn’t shut down I-95 for any other reason than an accident…The people who use the waterway need to depend on the fact that it is going to be opened.”


Meanwhile, rebounding property values threaten marinas, boat repair shops and other working waterfront properties, and a lack of open waterfront land along the Intracoastal Waterway has made it increasingly difficult for contractors and their crews to bring in the equipment they need dredge, build docks or complete other projects, leaders say.


The competition comes as Palm Beach County’s marine industries grows. From 2010 to 2014, marine-related sales in Palm Beach County increased by 101.2 percent, according to an economic impact study commissioned by the Marine Industries Association of South Florida.


“While this economy was in the doldrums, that kept a lot of people working,” said Chuck Collins, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County. “It kept taxes coming in. It kept businesses growing.”


The county’s marine industry employed more than 18,200 people last year and had an economic impact of roughly $1.9 billion, the study found.


“Think of all the businesses that rely on the water,” Collins said. “Those are big economic drivers. We are always concerned about access. We want as many people to have access to the water. It is part of why people live down here.”


All Aboard Florida has become the industry’s top concern, Collins said.


“There is a need for it,” Collins said of the All Aboard’s trains. “We recognize that fully. However, rail traffic can be disruptive if it is not done in the proper way.”


Three railroad drawbridges that span the Intracoastal, including the Loxahatchee River Bridge, have been a prime concern of boaters who queue up precariously when the bridge is lowered for a train to pass.


All Aboard Florida would add 32 trains a day to the Florida East Coast Railroad tracks. More frequent bridge closures could cause safety problems and negatively impact marine businesses — especially those located west of the FEC tracks, Collins said.


All Aboard Florida said it is working with marine groups to help limit impacts.


“We recognize the importance of the marine industry’s economic impact throughout Broward, Palm Beach and Martin counties,” Lynn Martenstein, vice president for All Aboard Florida corporate communications said in a prepared statement. “Since we announced this project in March 2012, we have actively engaged with the marine community to develop ways in which both of these vital industries could coexist. We are currently working the U.S. Coast Guard on a number of mitigation measures and are committed to continuing these discussions.”


The Loxahatchee River bridge is one of three, including the St. Lucie River bridge and New River bridge in Fort Lauderdale, that All Aboard Florida said will get upgrades that allow them to be raised and lowered more quickly.


Because of the improvements, closing times at the Loxahatchee­ River bridge will be reduced from an average of 20 minutes to 12 minutes, says a draft environmental report released in September.


But because of the increase in trains, the average total closure time per day during the week will increase from 5.8 hours to 8.6. On the weekends, that average daily closure time will grow from 3.6 hours to 7.2 hours.


Crosley fears more competition for water access as the county continues to grow. He says boaters and marine businesses need to work together to protect access to the Intracoastal and other navigable channels.


“I see this as a trend in general,” Crosley said. “These other types of industries or interests are organized and they are communicating with people, and they have expressed how important their industry is. I think the marine industries could go a long way to get together and whatever our differences are, when we get to the state and Federal government level and speak with one voice.”

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