Brightline train passengers may one day be whisked through the heart of Fort Lauderdale — over a high span or even through a tunnel — in a big change in how trains get past the New River.
These days, they must cross a monstrous drawbridge in the downtown, a sore point for the city’s marine industry, which for years has seen boat traffic delayed by Florida East Coast Railway freight trains that rumble over the span.
And boaters assert things only worsened last year when Brightline, which is being rebranded as Virgin Trains USA, began serving the public in 2018.
At an Urban Land Institute conference on investment and development in Fort Lauderdale last Monday, Mayor Dean Trantalis raised the idea of a tunnel to resolve the problem. He brought it up before an audience of real estate and land use experts after he was asked to name signature projects he would like to see while in office.
There’s a need to “bury the rail lines,” Trantalis said, so marine traffic can flow up and down the river unimpeded.
A delay for boaters
Each time the drawbridge is lowered to let the trains through, it leaves only 4 feet of clearance, forcing vessels to stop and wait and causing yachtsmen and other boat operators to fume.
Trantalis said through spokesman Scott Wyman on Thursday that “his mentioning of a tunnel is more aspirational in nature in that he wants alternatives considered.”
“While he believes something must be done to address the conflicts created by the expanding rail use, he has concerns about the bridge ideas being floated,” Wyman said.
Citing projections from the Florida Department of Transportation, Wyman said a bridge would need to run from south of Davie Boulevard to north of Sunrise Boulevard.
“That’s because freight trains, based on the locomotives used here, need a small gradient rise of about 100 feet for every foot in height,” he said. “A bridge, we’re told, would need to be 40- to 50-feet high in order to avoid conflicts with most boat traffic. That would have a dramatic impact on downtown and its neighborhoods.”
Overall, the mayor believes “the city needs to think outside the box on traffic solutions.”
Aside from that, the city hasn’t conducted any conversations with any other agencies.
Through a spokeswoman, Brightline declined to comment Thursday, referring questions to the city.
Urgent push for change
Whether it’s a bridge or a tunnel, the Marine Industries Association of South Florida insists that something must be done to stop the delays caused by the drawbridge being lowered to allow the trains to pass through. Many of the association’s members are boat repair, refurbishing and storage businesses that operate west of the bridge. And the delays are more than an annoyance. Cumulatively, they are costly economically, the association argues.
Phillip Purcell, the association’s CEO and president, said the city is in dire need of modernized infrastructure to accommodate a downtown building boom that will see a city-county government campus, a new federal courthouse, and 7,000 new condo and rental residential units. He lauded Trantalis for advocating a tunnel.
But he said more support is needed from city and county commissioners, as well as the Florida Department of Transportation and the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“Broward needs to put on big-boy pants and advocate for infrastructure on the eastern side of town,” Purcell said Friday. He said the association would like to see the rail operations elevated not only over the New River, but over Broward Boulevard so that trains don’t tie up traffic at the existing railroad crossing.
Spokespersons for the MPO and FDOT did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
As the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported last summer, the U.S. Coast Guard opened an investigation into the drawbridge’s operation in an effort to address complaints that the railroad operators were allegedly violating the agency’s rules for lowering the bridge to allow trains to cross the river.
Under Coast Guard rules aimed to keep marine traffic flowing at a reasonable rate, the span cannot be lowered more than 60 minutes out of every two-hour period. After receiving complaints from boaters, the Coast Guard took a look.
Until last year, the bridge handled only freight trains, which have been operated for years by the Florida East Coast Railway. Then, the Brightline commuter service started, causing the 40-year-old bridge to be lowered more frequently. The service added 11 round-trip train trips to the tracks per weekday, a number rose to 16 last August.
Brightline said at the time that it had taken steps for minimize the bridge’s interference with boat traffic. It said it was working closely with Florida East Coast, a dispatch partner, FloridaDispatch Co., and the Coast Guard, to provide notice of closures and keep them to a minimum.
But it was unclear Friday whether the Coast Guard’s investigation has concluded. A spokesman couldn’t be reached for comment.
Brightline launched its service in May of last year, and now ferries passengers traveling among Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Its Fort Lauderdale station is slightly north of Broward Bouelvard and west of Andrews Avenue.