Stuart train crossings too risky for city-wide quiet zone

Posted on April 21, 2016

By Lisa Broadt of TCPalm

STUART — Two of the city's busiest and most dangerous rail crossings would not receive entrance and exit gates — key safety upgrades — leaving the city with a more perilous stretch of track once Brightline begins running 32 trains a day, according to federal data.

Rather, four-quadrant grade-crossing improvements in Martin County and its municipalities would be made only in areas where trains would travel between 80 mph and 110 mph, according to the final engineering plans released last week by All Aboard Florida.

These planned upgrades mean the 25 crossings in unincorporated Martin County and its municipalities would qualify, under a federal calculation, for quiet zones — stretches where the Federal Railroad Administration has determined the safety improvements in place negate the need for train horns — along the entire 26-mile corridor.

But All Aboard Florida has no plan to install four-quadrant gates at any intersection where its Brightline trains would travel slower than 80 mph, including Alice and Fern streets just north of the St. Lucie River bridge and Sailfish Circle and Confusion Corner in downtown Stuart.

Without train horns or crossing improvements, the danger — or "risk index" under federal calculations — for these crossings would rise significantly, according to railroad administration data.

All Aboard Florida in September offered two plans that would allow Stuart to pay for a quiet zone on its own. One would add exit gates to Confusion Corner at a cost of $261,000, the other would make improvements to Second, Fern and Alice streets at a cost of $487,000.

Federal Railroad Administration calculations determine the combined risk score of all the intersections in a given area. The calculations account for a handful of factors, but primarily give credit for additional rail gates and the construction of traffic medians.

In a statement, an All Aboard Florida spokeswoman said the company "is making a significant investment in safety improvements at grade crossings that far exceeds the regulatory requirements covered in Section 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations or those contained in the Florida Statutes," including additional flashing lights, new striping and signs.

Based on the Federal Railroad Administration's analysis, the company said, Confusion Corner will "adhere to all roadway and railroad design standards that exist to enhance the safety of motorists."

The Stuart City Commission has expressed interest in quiet zones but has taken no official position. At the moment, though, ensuring the safety of each crossing takes priority over pursuing quiet zones, according to City Manager Paul Nicoletti.

Upgrading intersections for the sole purpose of quiet zones is asking the city to "put a price on safety," Nicoletti said.

The city is examining its options.

"Our engineers are looking at it with the All Aboard folks. They are going to meet at some point in the near future to go over the plans and what could be done physically," he said.

All Aboard Florida on Wednesday said "if the city of Stuart wishes to apply for a quiet zone, they may do so."

Completed engineering plans for Martin and St. Lucie counties were approved by the railroad administration March 15 and sent to local governments April 3. Brevard and Indian River counties have not yet received the plans.

Brightline passenger service between Miami and West Palm Beach is to begin in mid-2017, with Miami-to-Orlando service beginning in late 2017.

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