The Palm Beach Post: Editorial: With high-speed rail coming, facts needed on aging bridge

Posted on June 10, 2015

The railroad bridge looks like a rusting antique as it stretches flat across the water of the Loxahatchee River. It is not a look that inspires confidence.

The Jupiter Inlet District was so concerned about the Florida East Coast Railway bridge’s integrity, it asked a company, Taylor Engineering, of Jacksonville, to assess it. The firm’s February report takes note of the 1925 bridge’s decades of exposure to weather and saltwater. “Corrosion” comes up a lot — as in, “extensive corrosion,” “notable corrosion” and “noticeable corrosion.”

All these “easily visible potential bridge deficiencies” were just “observed with the naked eye from a boat,” the firm said. Taylor Engineering lacked access to make a firsthand inspection because the structure is private FEC property.

The engineers haven’t been alone in seeking to assess this bridge, which, despite its age and heavy use as a bearer of freight trains, soon will face the added duty of carrying 32 passenger trains daily, when Florida East Coast Industries’ project, All Aboard Florida, begins its futuristic dream of high-speed service between Miami and Orlando.

Several groups, including The Palm Beach Post, have sought FEC inspection reports about the bridge. But FEC has not been forthcoming, and there is no mandate that a private company forward such reports to the Federal Railroad Administration, where the public might see it.

Now it appears FEC has no plan on the horizon to replace the hulking thing before passenger cars start rolling. At a community meeting held in Jupiter last week, FEC Vice President Robert Ledoux said the company has no plans to replace the railroad bridge for at least five years. All Aboard Florida plans to run trains across it in 2017.

Residents of the village of Tequesta have seen what can happen if the Loxahatchee River Bridge fails to operate as planned. On March 7, the span failed to close all the way because of an electrical problem, forcing a southbound train to stop. That immobilized street traffic for 90 minutes because the train was blocking the town’s three east-west crossings. An ambulance carrying a car-crash victim had to make a 47-minute detour to get to Jupiter Medical Center, usually a trip of just a few minutes.

Tequesta Mayor Abby Brennan fired off a pointed letter to FEC on March 9, urging quick action, calling the bridge a problem that “simply cannot wait to be remedied.” Brennan ominously but sensibly said the additional strains of All Aboard Florida “will only serve to accelerate the faulty bridge mechanisms to their ultimate and complete failure.”

Ledoux did promptly assure the mayor that, in the future, trains would no longer block all the street crossings if they have to stop. But on the subject of replacing or repairing the bridge? Not a word.

Asked about it this week, All Aboard Florida told The Post Editorial Board, “We are making significant investments on the movable bridges which will improve efficiency and ensure that we have the most reliable infrastructure possible.” Ledoux said, without elaboration: “FECR bridges are safe for operation. They are inspected annually and have met all of the applicable standards and regulations.”

Boaters have been especially worried about All Aboard Florida, because, with railroad bridges down, only a kayak or canoe can get under the low-lying train tracks. AAF has said the Loxahatchee River Bridge, as well as those over the St. Lucie and New rivers, will get upgrades to shorten the time it takes to raise and lower the movable sections.

The Jupiter Inlet District has proposed a smart solution: rebuilding the Lox bridge at a higher elevation.

As we’ve said previously, we want All Aboard Florida to be the boon for intercity travel that its backers say it will be. It will likely inject adrenaline into downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach where the venture is building stations and associated real estate projects.

But for most everyone else along the route, there’s not much to look forward to but more noise, more crossing stops, more chances of someone getting hurt when those nine-car trains come speeding through town.

With that, FEC should be bending over backward to assure the public that All Aboard Florida will operate safely and with a minimum of inconveniences. It doesn’t appear that’s how it’s working out.

A good start would be for the railroad to open up the facts about the bridges’ structural integrity. Better yet, FEC should accelerate a program of replacing these relics.

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