Jupiter boaters fear All Aboard Florida impact

Posted on November 17, 2014

By Kimberly Miller

Happy hour on Friday and dozens of Jupiter-area mariners were not at the notoriously named Square Grouper waterfront watering hole.

Instead, clad in fishing shirts and Friday casual they made a final plea to Coast Guard officials tasked with keeping waterways open to boaters despite All Aboard Florida’s plan for a new passenger rail line.

The addition of 32 express trains from Miami to Orlando on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks will mean more closings of the Loxahatchee River drawbridge, a 90-year-old rust-covered goliath that is a key passage to the Atlantic.

Friday’s meeting at the Jupiter Community Center was the last of three public hearings for fishermen to tell their tales of wrestling currents while waiting for the bridge, which can take 20 minutes or more to close and reopen.

“We know the operation of this bridge and we know you can sit there for an hour or more,” said Andrew Weston, a Jupiter Realtor and captain of a Contender 31 open fishing boat. “With 32 additional trains, that thing is going down and won’t be coming up any time soon.”

About 150 people attended the meeting. One speaker lamented the 5:30 start time on a Friday, saying it wasn’t happy hour keeping people away, but school football games and other student activities that parents attend.

The meeting also coincided with the Town of Jupiter’s release of its response to the September draft environmental impact report from the Federal Railroad Administration on All Aboard Florida.

Town officials are asking for additional study of the structural integrity of the Loxahatchee River bridge, more details on the expected increase in freight traffic, and a review of noise and vibration impacts to people who live near the tracks.

“The areas of moderate noise impact seem to be underestimated,” Jupiter Town Manager Andrew Lukasik wrote in a four-page letter.

The town is also concerned with All Aboard Florida’s belief that it can expand capacity within its right-of-way without any public input.

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.

“God and Mother Nature decide where water goes and waterway users only have that one option,” said Dana Goward, a 30-year Coast Guard veteran and former director of its marine transportation systems. “Railroads and roads typically have other options.”

Goward, who oversaw permitting for 18,000 bridges that crossed navigable waterways, was contacted by the group Citizens Against Rail Expansion, and flew from Virginia to attend Friday’s meeting.

Because of bridge improvements promised by All Aboard Florida, closing times at the Loxahatchee River bridge are expected to 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 resulting environmental report concluded that the project will not have a significant adverse effect on the marine industry.

But an eight-month study by the Jupiter Inlet District found a heavier flow of boat traffic. And while All Aboard Florida also plans to mitigate wait times by making train schedules public, boaters said storms and currents and tides don’t adhere to railway schedules.

“We think the bridge currently exceeds the Coast Guard’s rules as far as an impediment to navigation,” said George Gentile, chairman of the Jupiter Inlet District. “Their simulation uses only half the daily average of vessels going through there.”

Goward had stronger words for the results of the draft environmental report that found a limited impact.

“Lies, damn lies,” he said. “Lies and computer models.”

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