Taking a high-speed train is one way to travel between Miami and Orlando. But there could be other options like hiking and biking.
As All Aboard Florida prepares to provide passenger service on the Florida East Coast Railroad, there's a growing push to include a walking and biking trail along with the new rail.
Walking and biking next to a high-speed train may sound odd to some. But bike and pedestrian advocates contend a greenway within or next to the FEC railroad corridor would have a number of benefits:
Improving safety by giving pedestrians who already stroll along the tracks a designated, safe place to do that.
Connecting communities that have FEC tracks running through their downtowns and neighborhoods.
Providing access, other than by car, to All Aboard stations as well as future stations that would come with a new Tri-Rail commuter service.
"This can provide recreation, transportation and promote tourism," said Ken Bryan, the Florida director of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. "We're excited about the All Aboard Florida project. This (trail) can make that project better."
All Aboard Florida plans to run 32 trains a day between Miami and Orlando with stops in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Construction is expected to begin this year with service starting in 2016.
All Aboard Florida hasn't warmed to the trail idea. The railroad would have to give permission for the trail to be built on its property.
"The Florida East Coast Railway corridor is used for freight today. With the addition of intercity passenger rail service and possibly the Tri-Rail Coastal Link commuter rail system, there is not enough capacity for any additional transportation uses," All Aboard Florida said in a statement.
Still, Rails-to-Trails has requested that the Federal Railroad Administration identify the proposed trail as a way to lessen the impact of the new passenger service to local communities. The group also has taken its case to the Florida Department of Transportation and local communities.
The concept of a rail trail on the FEC isn't so far fetched. An All Aboard Florida trail is included in the state's greenways and trails plan as a priority project.
There isn't any inherent danger in putting a path next to an active rail line, Bryan said. There are already 188 active so-called rails with trails in the United States.
"In all those cases, there has been only one documented fatality," Bryan said. "The train is very predictable. That train is more predictable and safer than riding or walking beside a road with people driving and texting."
Rail trails are built some distance away from the rails, and there is often a barrier such as a fence between the trail and railroad.
Trail proponents point out that the passengers disembarking from trains likely won't have a car and would want to be able to easily walk to a nearby business, event or restaurant.
And simply relying on vehicles to get to designated stations with an extensive amount of parking may not be a good idea, especially in already crowded downtown areas, they say.
"If we don't have pedestrian and bike access and don't have a greenway, it's going to be traffic gridlock," said Jim Smith, chairman of SAFE, a Delray Beach bike and pedestrian advocacy group.
In addition to the proposed FEC trail, an extensive network of bike lanes and sidewalks would be needed as more passenger service is added to the FEC, Smith said. He has been pushing for that network as a committee member for the Tri-Rail Coastal Link, Tri-Rail's planned commuter service on the FEC that will include many more stations and trains.
"We need to be ready for them," he said. "The sooner we do it, the better we're going to be."
But even with all these high hopes for a trail, the idea is still very conceptual, said Bret Baronak, Palm Beach County's bike and pedestrian coordinator. There are significant barriers to the project, mainly the FEC granting access and finding a way to pay for the 230-mile trail.
In Palm Beach County, it might be possible to piece together a trail just outside the railroad's property using open public land, Baronak said.
"It would lend itself well to non-motorized transportation," he said. "It's close to the downtown of all the cities…If there are proper barriers and security, there's a potential to have a great bike trail."
Bryan acknowledges piecing together the trail, whether on railroad property or through other solutions, could take time. But he believes now is the time to identify where the trail would go and preserve it.
"If we don't consider it now or plan now, the cost becomes prohibitive in the future," he said. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity."
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