The TC Palm – Boats and trains a matter of ‘David and Goliath’

Posted on November 14, 2014

It was a chance to be heard.

Treasure Coast recreational boaters and marine industry officials knew Thursday’s community meeting with the Coast Guard could be a matter of “speak up or forever hold your peace.”

The issue at hand is a troubled bridge over water. The rusting hulk of a railroad bridge that spans the St. Lucie River in downtown Stuart has been the focal point for hundreds of emails, letters and phone calls to the Coast Guard office designated to receive such complaints.

Vocal, but civil, boaters packed the Blake Library’s largest meeting space Thursday, the John Armstrong room. They filled it to capacity and beyond. The air conditioner struggled to keep up. Those who would not be let inside when the meeting got underway strained to listen from the vestibule outside the room.

One by one, those who signed up used their allotted two minutes to enter their comments into the official record of the meeting. Gene Stratton, who led the meeting for the Coast Guard, said it is too early to tell if the comments will be added to the Federal Register, but they will definitely be part of the rule making process that is to come.

Before the meeting, Stratton set ground rules for the hearing. He made it clear this meeting was not about All Aboard Florida.

But who was he kidding? This had everything to with All Aboard Florida.

All 375-plus people who came to participate in the proceedings knew it, too.

In all, 55 people spoke to Stratton in the public forum. From the first speaker, Diane Riggan, former commander for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 59 in Stuart, to the final speaker, Julia Sansevere, a Stuart real estate agent who handles waterfront home listings in Palm City, the message sent was clear: The trains will create serious problems for boaters, mariners, marine businesses and waterfront property located, as Darrell Brand of Palm City joked, “On the wrong side of the tracks.”

Peter Schmidt, owner of United Yacht Sales, and Bill Bates, manager of Riverwatch Marina in Palm City, both estimated there are more than 1,000 commercial docks west of the bridge. Based on the trains running the majority of their schedule between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., Schmidt said, the bridge will virtually be impassable by boaters during daylight hours.

“We won’t have road rage, we’ll have waterway rage,” he said.

Dick Tuschick of Seagate Harbor moved here because of the easy access to Intracoastal Waterway. He took exception to the graphic presentations made at the Federal Railway Administration hearings that have already taken place.

“They fail to reflect the actual movement of boat traffic, currents, winds, volume of boat traffic and that the railroad and roadway bridges must work together to allow boat traffic to move,” he said.

Several speakers noted that the narrow navigational channel and the added congestion and frustration that will result by boaters having their right of way impeded will result in accidents.

Jody Foster, a maritime attorney in Stuart, expressed her concerns. “Accidents at that spot will be dire,” she said.

John Sprague, of the Marine Industries Association of Florida, reminded the officials that the St. Lucie River is the eastern end of the cross-state Okeechobee Waterway. It is the only connection between east and west Florida.

“According to the data at the St. Lucie Locks, 10,000 vessels a year pass through there,” Sprague said. “The Coast Guard needs to remember, it also needs to concern itself with safety of lives, not just navigation interests.”

So what comes from this? Will the U.S. Coast Guard indeed be able to stop a speeding locomotive?

Probably not.

Stratton explained the Coast Guard does not have the authority to tell the train companies how to do their jobs. But what the Coast Guard will do is set rules for how the bridges that cross navigable waterways are operated.

Of note, Stratton said his office staff of four are “overwhelmed” with boaters’ concerns about the problems that will be created by more frequent and longer down time for draw bridges.

And it could take six to 18 months before a final rule is developed, at which time the public gets another crack at reviewing the rules to “poke holes in it,” as Stratton said.

Comments made at this meeting, and sessions for the Loxahatchee and New rivers, will be used to develop new Coast Guard rules, which will be published in the Federal Register.

Sansevere called the entire process “Traingate” and said “We are David and they are Goliath, but that’s not all bad because Goliath was killed” when referring to the coming trains.

And I know thousands of boaters upriver of the railroad bridge in Stuart would be willing to sling that stone.

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