The Palm Beach Post – Railroad bridge becomes bigger concern after breakdown

Posted on March 23, 2015

By Kimberly Miller


JUPITER — To the layman’s eye, the rusting hulk of the Loxahatchee River railroad drawbridge looks in shoddy shape — girders with jagged ham-sized holes, missing and rotted railroad ties, corroded support brackets.


But the true condition of the 90-year-old span responsible for bearing Florida East Coast Railway freight over the river’s milky blue currents is less evident.


The Village of Tequesta grew up hugging the FEC railroad tracks.


Annual inspections required by federal code must be conducted by FECR, but there is no mandate that the private company automatically forward them to the Federal Railroad Administration, where they would likely become a public record.


A March 7 bridge breakdown, which left the Village of Tequesta immobile for 90 minutes as a waiting train blocked the town’s three crossings, has focused more attention on its condition and improvements promised by the planned All Aboard Florida passenger rail.


Despite requests to multiple agencies from the Jupiter Inlet District, the Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County, Citizens Against Rail Expansion and The Palm Beach Post, no FECR inspections of the nearly 600-foot unmanned span have turned up.


“Everyone has responded, but they haven’t had much to show us about the condition of the bridge,” said William Broome, an attorney working with the Jupiter Inlet District.


Tequesta, a town of about 5,800 residents founded 70 years after Henry Flagler purchased his railroad, is bisected by the tracks in the same way as many coast-hugging communities.


But its unique geography with Jonathan Dickenson State Park to the north, the Intracoastal to the east, and the fork of the Loxahatchee River cutting through the middle, leaves it particularly vulnerable if a southbound train is held up at the aging bridge.


Tequesta’s fire-rescue and police services are on the west side of the tracks. The closest hospital, Jupiter Medical Center is only a few minutes away, unless east-west roads are blocked. During the March 7 incident, an ambulance forced to take a circuitous route to the hospital spent 47 minutes in transit.


With more frequent freight trains expected from the widening of the Panama Canal, and the planned addition of All Aboard Florida’s 32 express passenger trains per day, Tequesta leaders have ratcheted up concerns about the bridge and lack of information about its condition.


“That bridge needs to be completely rebuilt,” said Tequesta Mayor Abby Brennan. “All Aboard Florida says it will be fixing the bridge, but we can’t wait.”


Brennan said the town has not kept track of bridge malfunctions, but will start logging issues.


Beginning Monday, the bridge will be locked in the down position for maintenance for four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon. The work is expected to last through Wednesday. Brennan said she doesn’t know if the maintenance is being done because of the March 7 snarl.


“I think the repairs are going to be a little more extensive than what we’ve seen recently,” she said.


Mariners griped for years that the Loxahatchee River bridge, which remains open for boaters to reach the ocean except when a train crosses, can take as long as a half hour to crank shut and reopen. The U.S. Coast Guard is reviewing how to maintain an open waterway despite the planned train additions.


At the same time, Florida East Coast Railway Senior Vice President Robert Ledoux has promised train engineers will stop north of Riverside Drive if there is a bridge malfunction, leaving one crossing open for Tequesta residents.


“I think that is the first positive step we’ve seen,” said Tequesta Village Councilmember Frank D’Ambra, who has been trapped in traffic twice because of a bridge breakdown. “But as far as addressing the bridge situation in a responsible way, I would say we’re not seeing that in general.”


In January, the Jupiter Inlet District hired Taylor Engineering to assess the bridge after being unable to get FEC inspection reports from the Federal Railroad Administration. An October email from a federal transportation analyst said it was “unlikely” the administration’s Office of Safety had copies of the bridge reports.


Taylor Engineering could only visually assess the bridge because it is private property, but its report raised concerns about extensive corrosion, missing or untightened nuts on bolts that hold down metal supports, riveted connections that no longer contain the rivet’s head, and missing and loose railroad ties.


Kenneth Craig, vice president of Coastal Engineering at Taylor Engineering, stressed that he’s a coastal engineer, not a bridge engineer.


“But I can tell you definitively there are things we observed that from an engineering background would lead us to ask questions,” he said.


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 to allow them to raise and lower 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, according to 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.


“All Aboard Florida will spend millions of dollars to upgrade the Loxahatchee River bridge,” said Lynn Martenstein, vice president for communications at All Aboard Florida. “One of the biggest upgrades will be reinstalling a second set of tracks to allow two trains to cross at the same time. We also will make a number of improvements to ensure the bridge is more reliable and efficient so trains can cross more quickly.”


The Village of Tequesta has not taken an official stand on All Aboard Florida, although many northern Palm Beach County residents fear an increase in traffic, noise, and safety risks because of the additional trains.


“It’s about public safety,” D’Ambra said. “Our position is, if this is coming through, than FEC has a responsibility to mitigate the problems, and from our standpoint, that is the railroad bridge.”

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