Loxahatchee Railroad Bridge a Serious Problem for All Aboard Florida

Posted on December 11, 2014

Original Letter from Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal R. Valeche, Vice-Chairman of the Palm Beach County Metropolitan Planning Organization


Last month I attended one of the meetings that the United States Coast Guard had scheduled to hear from the residents of Northern Palm Beach County on the impact of the proposed All Aboard Florida project. From the very first time I had heard about AAF, the bridge and its impact on marine activity had become a very serious concern of mine, and the comments from the public at the meeting I attended only reinforced my concerns.

As the Vice-Chairman of the Palm Beach County Metropolitan Planning Organization, as well as being one of the Palm Beach County Commission’s representatives on the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, I have been involved with this project for the two years I’ve been in office. Both organizations have been working very diligently to mitigate the impacts of All Aboard Florida, working under the assumption that since local officials have no regulatory authority over AAF’s planned project, the best course was to fight to be certain the project impacted our residents as little as possible. I am happy to say that both organizations have been very successful in these efforts, securing major financial concessions from AAF in order to establish enhanced safety measures at all grade crossings in Palm Beach County as well as many (soon to be all, in my view) “Quiet Zones” in these same locations. The declaration of a Quiet Zone, for those who may not be familiar, means that trains, whether freight or passenger, are not required to blow their horns when approaching a crossing.

The Loxahatchee River Railroad Bridge, however, presents many more complicated challenges. The bridge is, I believe, about 80 years old and opens and closes very slowly. Each open-close cycle requires about 20 minutes currently. Although this is quite slow, the current level of freight-only traffic is acceptable to the marine community, i.e. the bridge is up often enough on an hourly basis to allow reasonably open flow of marine traffic. We should note that when the bridge is down, there are virtually no vessels, other than small skiffs and kayaks, which can pass through, since the clearance, especially at high tide, is very restrictive.

The real question, which is on the mind of everyone who depends on passing under that bridge, whether for recreational or professional purposes, is what happens when 32 more passenger trains daily, as well as potentially expanded freight service, places more demands for the bridge to be down.

The most crucial element is how many minutes out of each hour will the bridge be open to marine traffic? Problems with the bridge being down too often are clearly about safety. There are police boats which must have access to both the inlet and river sides of the bridge. There are safety issues with boats queuing to pass under the bridge in the strong currents which frequently exist in the area and could cause collisions between boats or with marine structures.

All Aboard Florida and the FEC have pledged to try to mitigate this situation by improving the bridge open-close cycle from 20 to 12 minutes and to provide mariners with reliable schedules of when the bridge will be open. Regardless of the amount of minutes per hour AAF agrees to keep the bridge open to marine traffic, though, the question is how they will achieve this.

The logistical challenges of moving that many trains over one span, even after it is double-tracked, will be extremely formidable. Trains will have to run on precise schedules to arrive at the bridge when it is down. AAF will be installing a system called Positive Train Control, which will allow its dispatchers to have far greater control over the traffic flow. Passenger trains are much more likely to keep to their schedules, but freight is a different matter and it remains to be seen whether the mix of trains and times can be managed successfully.

The Coast Guard has held a number of meetings where they have listened to the very serious concerns of the marine community, and will be issuing an opinion sometime in the new year. I, for one, will be very interested to read their conclusions. This problem needs to be addressed now.

If I can be of assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact my office at 355-2201 or by e-mail at hvaleche@pbcgov.org.