The Palm Beach Post: Mariners challenge report on All Aboard Florida

Posted on November 12, 2014

By Kimberly Miller – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

South Florida’s boaters are challenging a federal environmental report that found All Aboard Florida will have little impact on the marine industry, criticizing a vessel survey that was taken during a short window in January.

Meetings begin today for seafarers to express their concerns to the US Coast Guard, which has final say on how much All Aboard Florida’s express passenger rail service from Miami to Orlando can impede waterway traffic.

+Mariners challenge report on All Aboard Florida photo LANNIS WATERS

A boater waits as the drawbridge over the Loxahatchee River rises after a freight train passed over it Tuesday morning, November … Read More

Unlike meetings organized by the Federal Railroad Administration to discuss an environmental impact statement on the project, the three Coast Guard forums will be conducted in a traditional format where attendees will get two minutes each to speak publicly. The Federal Railroad Administration meetings allowed people to speak privately with a court reporter or submit written comment.

But Coast Guard officials cautioned Tuesday that they want to hear specific navigational concerns, not general remarks about All Aboard Florida.

“This is fact finding for us, and we want to know details such as what kind of boat you have, your experiences with the bridges, and what kind of backups you are in,” said Gene Stratton, a marine information specialist with the Coast Guard.

+Mariners challenge report on All Aboard Florida photo LANNIS WATERS

A boater heads under the drawbridge over the Loxahatchee River after a freight train passed Tuesday morning, November 11, 2014. The … Read More

All Aboard Florida, which intends to run 32 passenger trains per day on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, has drawn the ire of many residents in northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast where trains will run up to 110 mph, but there will be no stops.

The Coast Guard’s focus is on three aging drawbridges that stay open for boat traffic but close when a train approaches. The bridges are the New River bridge in Fort Lauderdale, the Loxahatchee River bridge in Jupiter and the St. Lucie River bridge in Stuart.

The Coast Guard cannot order All Aboard Florida to change its project or update bridges, but it can regulate how often and when the bridges must be open to preserve safe channels.

+Mariners challenge report on All Aboard Florida photo LANNIS WATERS

A small boat passes under the drawbridge over the Loxahatchee River shortly before a freight train passed over it Tuesday morning, … Read More

Because of bridge improvements promised by All Aboard Florida, closing times at the Loxahatchee River bridge will be reduced from 20 minutes to 12 minutes. 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, according to the environmental report.

Surveys of vessel traffic through the openings were taken during a two- to three-week period in January. The conclusion in the draft environmental report was the project will not have a significant adverse effect on the marine industry.

“Even though they say they have an environmental impact statement, it reads more like a pat on the back,” said George Gentile, chairman of the Jupiter Inlet District, about the 520-page report released in September.

+Mariners challenge report on All Aboard Florida photo LANNIS WATERS

An FEC freight train crosses the drawbridge over the Loxahatchee River at 8:14 Tuesday morning, November 11, 2014. The bridge was … Read More

Gentile said the district took its own seven-month survey and got different results.

“We’re definitely showing more vessels than the environmental impact statement,” Gentile said.

For example, at the Loxahatchee River bridge, the environmental report shows the highest amount of boat traffic on a Sunday was 502 vessels, with a Sunday average for the three-week period of 314.

But the Jupiter Inlet District’s report, which measured from mid-January to mid-August, found the average Sunday vessel traffic was 564.

A report to the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council last month cast doubt on the boat survey at the St. Lucie River bridge, saying early data from a Martin County study “indicates the average number of vessels appears to be more than double those suggested in the draft environmental impact statement.”

Coast Guard officials said last week they have concerns about the current traffic conditions at the bridges, including boats queueing up in strong currents.

“It’s a known choke point on the waterway,” Stratton said about the bridges. “They’ve been there a long time.”

The Loxahatchee and St. Lucie river bridges were built in 1925.

Coast Guard public meetings:

New River bridge

Wednesday, Nov. 12, 6:30 to 9 p.m.

Anne Kolb Nature Center

West Lake Park

751 Sheridan Street, Hollywood, Florida

St. Lucie River bridge

Thursday, Nov. 13, 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

John F. Armstrong Wing Auditorium of the Blake Library

2351 S.E. Monterey Road, Stuart, Florida

Loxahatchee River bridge

Friday, Nov. 14, 5:30 to 8 p.m.

Town of Jupiter Council Chambers

210 Military Trail, Jupiter, Florida

All Aboard Florida hopes to reduce boater backups by:

Create a set schedule for bridge closure times.

Provide public acccess to bridge schedules.

Provide a countdown at each bridge to indicate closings and openings.

Create plans for holidays and peak vessel travel times.

Install a bridge tender at the New River bridge.

Comprehensive coverage

The Palm Beach Post has closely followed the $2.5 billion project – and its potential effect on local communities – since its inception. Read The Post’s archive of All-Aboard stories:

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