All (Aren't) Aboard Florida

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, March 24, 2015 No Comment(s)

The opposition to a railroad being a railroad is growing. Last week Indian River County (that's Vero Beach) commissioners voted to sue to stop All Aboard Florida – the proposed fast train from Miami to Orlando on the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. Comments from some elected officials up that way make the high-speed line sound like the worst thing that ever happened to their communities – the very destruction of their way of life.

Actually, the idea is one of the best things to happen, not just for the Treasure Coast, but for all six counties from Indian River to Miami-Dade. It is just going to take time for the public to get it. And the longer government figures continue to view the situation in short time, the longer it will take. In the long run, All Aboard Florida is the beginning of a transportation reformation that is long overdue. It is the modernization of the railroad that literally built the east coast of Florida. Its tracks run through the heart of every city, large and small, from Jacksonville to Miami. Those tracks are the reason many cities exist.

The FEC is partly to blame. It gave up passenger service in the 1960s, and over the years, it permitted hundreds of grade crossings as new roads to serve new communities were built. Between Miami and northern Palm Beach County there are only a few bridges over the tracks. They are so rare they should be designated tourist attractions.  Most northern railroads eliminated grade crossings a century ago, as it became obvious that motor vehicles and the iron horse had an inherent conflict of interest. There could be no Northeast Corridor, one of the busiest rail lines in the world (with Acela trains hitting 150 mph) if cars and trucks crossed the rails every few blocks or so.

But the FEC has new management with new ideas. We have noted before that this is an obvious real estate play, which over time will benefit the railroad. Most obvious is the major redevelopment already underway for its large and idle rail yard in Miami. Critics – almost all of them are well north of Miami – see this as some sort of evil. They do not see that, again in the long run, it is one of the best things that could happen to their increasingly traffic-jammed towns.

Making the FEC a busy passenger corridor – and it sure will be – will necessitate rebuilding the entire line, closing crossings where feasible, bridging others and ultimately (and very expensively) tunneling under the major waterways, such as Fort Lauderdale's New River and Stuart's St. Lucie River, where the trains now cross on lift bridges. Those opposing the railroad see only the problems – and they are very real – without perceiving the solutions.

Some perceptions are absurd. Letter writers to the Palm Beach Post suspect All Aboard Florida is a ruse to permit increased high-speed freight traffic on the FEC tracks. One writer suggests building a new railroad along U.S. 27 to carry all the freight expected to arrive at South Florida ports when the expansion of the Panama Canal is complete – as if constructing a new railroad is as simple as adding a flight on an airline.

What is disturbing is that media north of Broward County are not putting this historic opportunity in perspective. It was announced last year that the FEC, CSX and Tri-Rail are cooperating in an unprecedented way. Some of the long, slow freights will be transferred to the CSX, which has far fewer grade crossings. Tri-Rail had already identified potential stations in Palm Beach County when it shifts some trains to the FEC tracks where they always belonged. Opposition to All Aboard Florida would fade quickly if stations in Boca Raton, Delray Beach, West Palm Beach and Jupiter could serve commuters.

And looking deeper into the future, the entire east coast of Florida could have commuter service and fast inter-city trains on the same railroad. If those Indian River commissioners foresaw a station in Vero Beach from which they could get to Fort Lauderdale in an hour, they might not be so fast to write checks to lawyers.

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