The Palm Beach Post: Jupiter Inlet District floats idea for All Aboard bridge fix

Posted on April 15, 2015

The Jupiter Inlet District is urging the Coast Guard to order Florida East Coast Railway to revamp the 90-year-old Loxahatchee River railroad drawbridge before All Aboard Florida begins service, but a Coast Guard official says that’s out of the question. BRIANNA SOUKUP / THE PALM BEACH POST

The Jupiter Inlet District is trying to convince Coast Guard officials they can require fixes be made to the aging Loxahatchee River railroad drawbridge, but the push is making little headway with the regulatory agency.

A proposal by the district offers three engineering options that would increase clearance under the bridge so that more boats could pass when the span is closed for a train. The current 4-foot clearance allows only the smallest of vessels to pass, and mariners fear longer delays with the addition of the All Aboard Florida passenger rail project.

A letter sent this month to Coast Guard bridge director Barry Dragon cites what the district believes is legal precedence for the Coast Guard to order Florida East Coast Railway to revamp the 90-year-old bridge before All Aboard Florida begins its service.

In two court cases — one dating to 1907 — the district argues boaters should get preference over bridges when “unreasonable obstructions” arise.

“Railroad traffic does not take priority over vessels in navigable waters of the United States,” wrote William Broome, an attorney representing the Jupiter Inlet District, in an April 2 letter to Dragon. “The Jupiter Inlet District Commission urges you to closely and carefully consider the evidence presented, and order alteration of the bridge.”

But Dragon said the Coast Guard can’t force Florida East Coast Railway to complete a bridge makeover — a stance the Coast Guard has taken since complaints about boater delays at the Loxahatchee River bridge came to a head this year.

“We can’t make an entity or owner change the bridge,” Dragon said. “That’s kind of out of the question.”

The Coast Guard reviewed complaints about the condition of the rusting bridge to create a train schedule it expects will alleviate some of the delays. While Dragon didn’t give specifics Tuesday, he said he hopes to release a proposed rule this week that will keep the bridge open to boaters 50 percent of the time.

Dragon said the rule is only for the existing freight train traffic on the rail, not the 32 additional trains planned per day by All Aboard Florida.

“Freight is the more difficult issue,” Dragon said. “All Aboard Florida would run on a schedule and cross at certain times. The freight has a moving schedule.”

All Aboard Florida’s Miami to Orlando rail project would include improvements to the Loxahatchee River bridge, and two others, that would allow them to open and close more quickly. The private Coral Gables-based company estimates delays would be shortened from about 20 minutes each closing to 12 minutes.

But the addition of the passenger trains and an expected increase in freight trains could mean the bridges would be closed 10.4 hours per day, according to a Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council review cited in Broome’s letter.

The Jupiter Inlet District’s proposal includes designs from Jacksonville-based Taylor Engineering. The options include replacing a steel girder on the bottom of the bridge with a trestle-type “superstructure” on top. The change would increase clearance from 4 feet to 8 feet when the span is closed.

According to Taylor Engineering, the clearance increase would allow 89 percent of vessels to pass under the bridge when closed. There is no cost estimate given with the engineering plans.

“We are trying to look for solutions,” said George Gentile, Jupiter Inlet District board chairman. “We definitely think the Coast Guard has the ability to evaluate impediments and the right to get involved.”

The Jupiter Inlet District’s proposal will be discussed at its April 22 meeting, which is open to the public. The meeting is scheduled for 7 to 10 p.m. at the Jupiter town hall, 210 Military Trail.

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