New downtown passenger train service that would speed users from Orlando to South Florida and back may sound like a tourism dream come true, but there’s a potentially unexpected cost to local residents.
Local governments face increased costs to maintain the areas where their roads cross the tracks and some fear the closing of smaller crossings to vehicular traffic to save money.
Elizabeth Fulford lives west of Broward General Hospital and believes if crossings are closed, “it may turn into a life or death issue.”
“I am very concerned about the road closures. What happens if I need an ambulance and trains are blocking the tracks?” she asked. “If they close the smaller crossings, how will this affect the police and fire” in their ability to quickly get to the scene?
So far, plans have been announced to close several streets in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to make way for new train stations on land owned by the developer, All Aboard Florida. Downtown Miami, near the Miami-Dade Government Center, is also slated for a new station; however, company officials say no road closures have been planned at this time.
“We are working with the city staffs to determine the appropriate traffic mitigation measures, like perimeter roads,” All Aboard Florida staff wrote in an e-mail.
But more crossings could be earmarked for closure if municipalities along the Florida East Coast Rail line balk at paying increased maintenance costs that could total between $6,000 and $8,000 per year per crossing, said Paul Calvaresi, transportation planner with the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).
In all, there are 68 crossings in Broward.
All Aboard Florida, a project of Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), is seeking a federal loan for the $1.5 billion needed to upgrade its tracks and purchase other infrastructure. The company will build train stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Gov. Rick Scott recently pledged up to $215 million in state money to build a new Orlando rail station that would serve All Aboard Florida. FECI Executive Vice President Jose Gonzalez promises a three-hour ride from Miami to Orlando.
They hope to have trains rolling as early as next year.
Gonzalez said the passenger trains will average 79 miles per hour overall, but travel well over 100 mph in rural areas. Freight trains owned by the Florida East Coast Railway, an FECI affiliate, will travel along a parallel set of tracks, which will be restored, on the old Flagler Railroad bed at slower speeds, he told the Fort Lauderdale City Commission during its conference meeting on April 1.
“We plan to run 32 [passenger] train trips on the tracks from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. per day, Gonzalez said. He added that freight trains currently running on those tracks will eventually be moved west to the state-owned tracks currently used by the Tri-Rail, he said.
That’s 16 round trips a day. All Aboard Florida’s website says it expects that about three of every four of its future customers will be leisure travelers, “whether that’s a couple taking a weekend trip, or a family of four visiting from an international destination.” It cites a 2012 ridership study, which found that people take more than 50 million trips between South Florida and Central Florida.
More than 350 roads cross the tracks between Miami and Cocoa, at which point the train will turn west to Orlando. Each crossing that remains open requires safety upgrades, which Gonzalez said his company would pay.
But the municipalities that control the roads will have to come up with funding for enhanced safety measures to create “Quiet Zones” where trains are to refrain from blasting their horns at every crossing.
A preliminary estimate for Broward County’s upgrades comes to $13.75 million for its 68 crossings, according to Broward’s MPO. The costs are to pay for beefed up gates, vehicle detectors, sidewalks, medians, additional lights and gate-mounted horns.
MPO planner Paul Calvaresi and Director of Planning James Cromar are working on behalf of Broward and Palm Beach counties with All Aboard Florida. When the project started, they conducted a study.
“We looked at the 68 crossings in Broward County and made a list of where quiet zones would be most needed if funding was limited,” Cromar said. Palm Beach County’s 114 crossings also were studied
They recommended that 41 crossings in Broward not be upgraded for Quiet Zones to save costs.
“We got quite a bit a push back from the cities about that list,” Cromar said. The draft plan was scratched and the planners began looking for ways to fund all of the crossings in Broward and Palm Beach counties, with Florida Department of Transportation working up the cost estimates.
All Aboard Florida officials concede that some additional crossings will be closed but say those decisions are local and have not been made.
Hollywood does not plan to close any of its railroad crossings at this time, said Raelin Storey, director of public affairs and marketing.
Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman said All Aboard Florida has not asked his staff about closing any crossroads other than Northwest Second Street.
“I don’t expect that they will ask,” he said. “But, we would look at them individually.”
The Broward MPO is in the process of applying for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant for Broward and Palm Beach counties. The grant provides funding nationwide for road, rail, transit and port projects that encourage economic recovery. The grant would pay for the increased safety equipment at crossroads in the Quiet Zones.
Grantees must provide a 20 percent non-federal match, according to the agency’s website, and no more than $150 million can be awarded to projects in a single state. The grant pool for 2014 is $600 million. The deadline to apply is April 28.
Streets already set for closure are Northwest Second Street in Fort Lauderdale. Crossings on Datura and Everinia streets in West Palm Beach also will close. In Fort Lauderdale a new perimeter road will run around the station.
Miami-Dade County, which has 13 miles of track, has not taken up the issue yet, said Wilson Fernandez, transportation assistant manager for the Miami-Dade County MPO.
He added that approval for the train station in downtown Miami is going through the county approval process.
Meanwhile, an engineer with the Federal Railroad Administration is concerned that All Aboard Florida is short-cutting safety requirements in 57 rural areas north of Palm Beach where the passenger trains run at speeds between 110 and 125 miles per hour.
A report by Engineer Frank A. Frey said such high-speed railroad crossings should be completely sealed off so that no vehicles can get onto the tracks when the crossing bars are down. In fact, he said federal guidelines require it.
Yet his report notes that All Aboard Florida officials oppose the sealed corridor idea, saying it is a suggestion, not a requirement, and arguing that such added safety measures would cost the company an additional $47 million.
“They are not exercising appropriate safety practices and reasonable care when designing for high speed passenger rail service,” he said.