The federal government has delivered a largely positive evaluation of a $2.5billion private project to build an express passenger train between Miami and Orlando that, according to company estimates, could have a ridership of 3.5million by 2019.
A required Draft Environmental Impact Statement issued Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) says that overall the All Aboard Florida project would have minimal impacts on the environment including air quality, water resources, wetlands and protected species.
“The cumulative analysis for the project shows that the combination of the [All Aboard Florida] passenger rail project impacts with other impacts would not result in a serious deterioration of environmental functions,” the 522-page report states.
All Aboard Florida seemed pleased by the report, but said its executives were still reading the massive document.
“All Aboard Florida is still reviewing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that was published by the Federal Railroad Administration on Friday,” an All Aboard Florida statement said. “Thus far, we have found the analysis consistent of what we have been saying in terms of benefits and impacts. We will continue our review of the document and engagement in productive dialogue with stakeholders along the corridor.”
Release of the federal evaluation is important both because it advances All Aboard Florida toward reality and because federal approval is necessary before the company can qualify for the $1.6billion loan it is seeking for the project.
The project still requires approvals by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal report says.
All Aboard Florida plans to start operating in 2016 running trains first between Miami and West Palm Beach. The second phase of the project would start operations in 2017 between West Palm Beach and Orlando International Airport.
The firm’s plan is to run the service with 16 round-trip trains that would cover the 235-mile route in about three hours, the report says. It also says that All Aboard Florida expects the service to be extremely popular with riders.
“The most conservative total annual ridership would amount to approximately 3.5 million [riders] in 2019,” the report says. Of that total, the majority — or about two million riders — would travel from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, the report says, citing company estimates.
By 2030, the report says, total ridership could exceed 4 million.
While the report says the project has the “potential to adversely affect” a number of environmental categories such as wetland and protected species, those effects could be mitigated with certain measures. At the same time, the report says, the project also could have “beneficial environmental effects” because it might reduce traffic on highways between Miami and Orlando since many drivers are expected to take the train instead.
One possible significant impact, the report said, would be an increase in the number of times that traffic at railroad crossings would have to stop.
“Typical at-grade crossings,” the report said. “would be closed an average of 54 minutes per day [3 times per hour], with closure times ranging from 1.7 minutes [passenger] to 2.8 minutes [freight].”
From Miami to West Palm Beach, All Aboard Florida trains would share the rail corridor with existing freight trains traveling between PortMiami and Jacksonville.
The report said the train service also could lead to more frequent closing of drawbridges over certain wateways used by boaters, but it noted that All Aboard Florida has proposed to work with mariners more closely to reduce delays.
Even for the long haul, when climate change is expected to be a factor, the federal report said the potential impact of sea level rise for the project’s east-west segment from Cocoa to Orlando is expected to be “minimal” for the 2030 and 2060 planning horizons.
Sea level rise may be more of a threat for the Miami-to-Cocoa segment that runs along the coast, the report said.
One negative impact, the report said, would be the possible demolition of two historic bridges over the Eau Gallie River and the St. Sebastian River on the south-north segment from Miami to Cocoa.