All Aboard Florida might be in for bumpy ride

Fort Lauderdale gets station, but boat industry worries about river crossing

Fort Lauderdale resident John Dotto has many concerns about All Aboard Florida, but he's even more alarmed that when he talks to people about the new rail project, he usually gets blank stares.

"Nobody realizes what's going on," said Dotto. "This is going to have a huge impact."

For those who don't know, All Aboard Florida is a proposed passenger rail service that will connect Miami to Orlando. It will run along the tracks east of I-95 now used by freight trains, with initial stops planned only for Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Its 32 daily trains will each cross 360 intersections along the route. And they will run over Fort Lauderdale's New River via the notoriously balky train drawbridge, which could impede boat traffic and harm nearby marine businesses.

Phil Purcell, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, said his group's main concern is making sure the drawbridge is up – and the New River open to boat traffic – at least 40 minutes an hour. Initial plans show the bridge might be down 24-to-28 minutes an hour for passing trains. "That's a big chunk," Purcell said.

There are now 14 daily freight trains that cross the bridge, roughly half during daylight hours, with each closure taking 12-to-20 minutes.

"Right now a kayak has a hard time going under that bridge when it's down," said Purcell. He said train officials have been "cooperative" so far, pledging to coordinate trains and operate the closings with a live bridgetender (instead of by remote control) for better efficiency.

At least Fort Lauderdale gets a shiny new downtown station – with drawings to be unveiled next week – where people can catch express trains to Miami or West Palm Beach. Ticket prices haven't been revealed by the private operators, who have been touting the service's convenience and need.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler supports the project, because his city will get all the benefits with some burdens. But in scores of smaller cities – such as Deerfield Beach, Hollywood and Pompano Beach – residents can only wave at 32 daily trains as they race by. They'll get all the negative effects – noise, gate closures, traffic backups – and won't be able to hop aboard.

No wonder the plan has started to trigger more opposition.

In Fort Lauderdale, a group Dotto is involved with – Save the New River – has collected 1,000 petition signatures online. A bigger group – Florida Not All Aboard – has gathered 18,000 signatures and has galvanized political opposition in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties.

"I highly question whether there's a need for this," said K.C. Traylor, of Palm City, the group's founder.

I'm skeptical myself. And instead of trying to get proper buy-in from people along the route, train developers have so far come across as haughty and secretive. They say it's all privately funded, but they're also asking the feds for a $1.5 billion loan for new tracks north of West Palm Beach. Regulators still must review and approve portions of the project.

"All Aboard Florida's opinion is they own the tracks, they own the land, they can do what they want," Traylor said. "But our contention is it's not so simple."

Get ready for a rocky ride.

mmayo@tribune.com; 954-356-4508.

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