already carry freight on these lines that would
need to be shared with high-speed passenger
traffic. Complicating the equation, in Central
America, the expansion of the Panama Canal,
which will add two new locks and double the
amount and the size of international shipping traffic travelling back and forth between
Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is scheduled for
completion in 2016. The new, much larger
ships that this expansion will spawn (built
to the giant “Post Panamax” size limits) will
head up to Miami and Port Everglades, the
first deepwater U.S. ports on the Atlantic
side. It’s estimated that this will double the
freight loads over the railroads by 2016, the
same year AAF plans to open. More rail traffic
means less open navigation for boaters.
The three drawbridges that will have the
most impact on boaters will be on the
Loxahatchee River near Jupiter, on the New
River just east of the Marshall Memorial
Bridge in Fort Lauderdale, and on the St.
Lucie River north of Arbeau Point in Stuart.
In a November 2014 white paper issued by
the Marine Industries Association of Florida
(MIAF), an alternate plan was suggested to
AAF that would have realigned the course of
the passenger trains west by utilizing existing CSX railroads and avoiding the crossings
on the Loxahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.
However, the AAF isn’t pursuing this option.
The New River Bridge is of particular concern because, even as far back as 2009, studies show it was closed for six hours a day due
to rail traffic. Recent cameras installed at the
bridge on the St. Lucie River indicate that in
a 53-day period, 12,784 boats crossed under
the bridge; an average of 243 per day needed
bridge openings – almost double the number
(157) than AAF claimed in their 2014 Draft
Environmental Impact Statement.
ECONOMIC DRIVER? OR DRAG?
There are also questions of sustainability and
of economic impact. AAF states that their rail
project will be a job creator and benefit the
environment, creating 10,000 full-time jobs
between 2014 and 2016 as well as stimulat-
ing the economies near the new stations.
AAF, owned by Florida East Coast Industries
(FECI), also starts the project owning 200
miles of the track and having Orlando ranked
as the most visited U.S. city in 2013. Add to
these assets, their roster of so many former
staff from the successful Disney attractions
and resorts, AAF may just have the expertise
to make the project profitable.
However, other companies and cities have
attempted to establish new American com-
muter or passenger rail service – such as
Portland, Oregon, and Nashville, Tennessee
– with disappointing results. Randal O’Toole
from the Cato Institute claims that no North
American rail-transit system covers its oper-
ating costs. According to O’Toole’s report,
Defining Success, The Case Against Rail Transit,
Tennessee spent $41 million in 2006 to
start the Music City Star to bring commut-
ers into Nashville. By 2008, train fares paid
by passengers only covered 15 percent of
the annual $4.1 million operating costs. In
Portland, the number of transit commuters
declined from 2000 to 2007, by about 1,000
commuters, while the number of folks driv-
ing to work still grew by 66,000.
You don’t often hear about rail failures
because those built with federal grants or
loans must either succeed in funding them-
selves over a prescribed time frame, or
return the money to the federal government.
Instead of returning funds, failing or under-
performing city and regional rail projects
have used state or local taxpayer money to
subsidize their programs.
Although the AAF is a private entity, the
project is relying heavily on a $1.6 billion
loan from the Federal Railroad Rehabilitation
and Improvement Financing Program. If
a lack of ridership or an underestimation
of operating costs leads the program to
underperform, the AAF rail project could
become another drain on the Florida tax-
payer. However, the distinction that AAF is
a private company could protect the local
taxpayer from carrying that burden.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)
released the Draft Environmental Impact
Statement for Phase II of the project in
September, and set a 75-day comment period
for interested parties to weigh in and hold
public hearings. The statement provides four
alternatives for the addition of the 168.5-
mile section linking West Palm Beach and
the Orlando theme parks.The FRA has
given a green light
on Phase I of the
The railroad bridge over the Loxahatchee River has only four feet of
clearance when closed.
Boaters have to navigate both a road drawbridge and a railroad bridge when traveling this
section on the St. Lucie River in Stuart.