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Bridge or tunnel considered for proposed commuter train

Bridge or tunnel? The city of Fort Lauderdale seems poised to plunge into another contentious debate over the best way to get people past a body of water.

A decade ago, the fight was over what to do with the 17th Street Causeway over the Intracoastal Waterway.

Today, it's the Florida East Coast Railway and a proposed commuter train that needs to cross the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale without being held up by boats.

State officials have proposed three options:

A $53 million, 65-foot tall fixed bridge;

A $66 million, 45-foot drawbridge;

Or a tunnel that could cost up to $530 million.

The existing railroad drawbridge won't work for passenger rail service because it stands open most of the time so boats can pass underneath. It is lowered for about a dozen freight trains a day. But the number of daily trains would double, even triple, with the addition of passenger service.

Residents in high-rise condo towers near the tracks say a high-level bridge would be an "ugly eyesore" that would cut through the heart of the city.

"I don't think the general public realizes the impact this could have on property values and the marine industry," said Riverside Park resident Charles Read.

Boat owners argue the fixed bridge could cut off ocean access to the tallest boats moored west of the tracks or those that are serviced at boatyards and marinas along the South Fork of the New River.

"It might actually totally exclude a boat I've owned for 20 years from getting to our dock," said Ralph Alter, who also lives in Riverside Park.

In March 2009, planners surveyed boats along the New River between the Andrews Avenue drawbridge and Interstate 95. They found the average height of the tallest sailboats was about 55 feet, with the tallest at 67 feet.

A marine operator who works at River Bend Marine Center told planners that at least two sailboats a month require a vertical clearance between 80 feet and 85 feet. Occasionally, there is a boat that reaches 95 feet in height.

The taller boats time their trip at low tide so they can pass comfortably under power lines that stretch 80 to 100 feet over the river west of the tracks.

The marine operator said the average height of boats he serves is 63.5 feet, an intentional design by many sailboat manufacturers driven by the 65-foot clearance under fixed bridges on the Intracoastal Waterway. The 17th Street drawbridge is 55 feet tall.

The proposed fixed bridge over the New River would have to begin rising north of Davie Boulevard on the south end and south of Sistrunk Boulevard on the north end to reach 65 feet over the New River.

Such long approaches are necessary to avoid closing streets that would pass under the span, said Scott Seeburger, project manager of the study for the Florida Department of Transportation.

The 45-foot tall drawbridge would have the same start and end points as the 65-foot span. But it would cost $66 million, the higher cost attributed to the drawbridge machinery. It would not have to be opened as often as the existing drawbridge, which is four feet above the water when lowered.

Two tunnel options would bury the tracks under the river and downtown from Davie Boulevard to Sistrunk Boulevard.

One would use a "cut and cover" construction method and build the tunnel in two phases over 23 months. Boats would be restricted to half the channel during construction. It would cost between $325 million and $335 million.

The other option would bore under the channel and maintain existing boat traffic. But it would cost $510 million to $530 million.

Any passenger rail stations built in downtown Fort Lauderdale would be elevated if a bridge is built or under ground if the tunnel is chosen.

A tunnel wouldn't be unprecedented in Florida, but it would add hundreds of millions to a project estimated to cost more than $2 billion if officials chose to put a commuter train on the FEC between Miami and Jupiter.

State officials also are considering building a road for buses next to the tracks for exclusive use by rapid transit buses. But analysis suggests rail is being favored over buses because the company that owns the FEC opposes the construction of a busway next to the tracks but doesn't object to sharing the tracks with commuter trains.

Fort Lauderdale is home to the state's only public underwater tunnel — the Henry Kinney Tunnel on U.S. 1, which replaced a low-level drawbridge in 1960. A $1 billion tunnel is under construction to connect Miami's MacArthur Causeway to the Port of Miami.

Opponents back the idea of commuter trains on the FEC, but argue that a tunnel is the best, less obtrusive option to cross the New River.

"The illustrations make the [FEC] bridge look very graceful in the artwork. We don't believe the final structure will look like the illustration at all," said Bob Granatelli, a spokesman for five downtown condominium associations representing 1,000 homeowners.

Residents fear the bridge and its approaches will look similar to the 55-foot tall span that was built for Tri-Rail over the South Fork of the New River.

The bridge is just west of the I-95 bridges over the river, which also are 55 feet tall. It begins rising where Davie Boulevard crosses the tracks and ends at the State Road 84 overpass. Unlike the proposed bridges for the FEC, the Tri-Rail bridge does not cross any streets.

"That is the type of ugly, massive, intrusive, structure that will be built in our backyards," Granatelli said. "Many of us escaped the 'El' train running right past our windows in New York City."

State officials say the Tri-Rail bridge looks "bulkier" because it was built to handle both freight and passenger trains.

But CSX freight trains continue using the existing drawbridge because the Jacksonville-based freight railroad objected to the use of an additive that helps cure and strengthen concrete in the bridge supports. The company apparently feared a repeat of the April 2004 bridge collapse on a Tampa expressway.

Seeburger said the planning is just beginning. More detailed analysis of the river crossing will begin next year.

"Some have interpreted our bridge drawings as creating a big wall. Actually, the higher level bridges would be built on columns, except at the ends where they come to the ground," Seeburger said.

"Look at the 17th Street Causeway. I'm sure if you compared the initial renderings with what got built I'm sure they were dramatically different. If we choose to do a bridge, this will go through that same design process."

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