Changes get county more on board with Brightline

For over a year, St. Lucie County has been engaged in an administrative battle against All Aboard Florida (AAF), striving to hold them accountable for public safety and environmental impacts their Phase II construction will have on Treasure Coast communities.

In December, after spending more than $1 million on legal expertise and proceedings, the SLC Board of Commissioners elected not to appeal an administrative decision to allow AAF to go forward. The vote passed 4-1, with Chris Dzadovsky (District 1) dissenting.

St. Lucie County attorney Daniel McIntyre said that to appeal the decision would be an imprudent use of county efforts – that they are in a stage of “diminishing return.” He nonetheless pointed out that throughout the administrative review, AAF has added many components to their plan that shore up safety and environmental precautions, so the overall result is one that citizens can be happy with.

In September 2016, in conjunction with Martin County, the St. Lucie Board of Commissioners filed proceedings against South Florida Water Management’s (SFWMD) Environmental Resources Permit for AAF, which authorizes AAF to construct a stormwater management system for their railway. There were numerous components that did not meet statutory standards, and much of the permitting was done in phases, which concerned the county.

After a year of review, and much back and forth between the county and rail company that led to integral changes to AAF’s plans, Administrative Law Judge Bram Canter recommended that the environmental permit be issued. SFWMD adopted the recommendation.

Throughout the process, which permitted AAF to make changes to their plan, many advancements for public safety and environmental mitigation were introduced to the blueprint, and St. Lucie likes to think this came as a direct result of their challenge. Now, 9 of 13 county crossings will be fitted with four-quadrant gates, safer than two-quadrant gates, as they help prevent vehicles from trying to “beat the train.” The other four crossings will be guarded by adequate alternatives. This is a marked improvement from the original plan, which only fitted 6 crossings with adequate gates.

Two crossings will now have sidewalks with pedestrian safety gates and two others will have multi-use paths with pedestrian safety gates.

Other additions are Vehicle Presence Detection, a remote sensing technology that alerts trains of trapped vehicles, and Remote Health Monitoring, which alerts trains of signal malfunctions as they approach a crossing. These technologies will now be used for all of St. Lucie County’s 13 crossings.

Improved environmental mitigation was also accomplished by the negotiations, including the proposed construction of detention swales, stormwater treatment and outfall structures (originally absent from AAF’s plans), along the triple track planned through Savannas State Preserve. Skimmers and baffles have also been added to minimize oil, grease and suspended solids in stormwater runoff. Additionally, AAF had originally planned to make use of a 13-mile unimproved maintenance road. Throughout the last year, St. Lucie and Martin counties were able to chisel this down to 2.7 miles.

While some of these improvements may be funded through cost-share programs, says St. Lucie Public Works director Don West, most of the additions will be constructed in the railroad’s right of way, and funded by AAF.

According to St. Lucie’s railroad consultant, Triad Railroad Consulting, the improvements now added to AAF’s plans constitute a value of $2.7-$3.9 million.

On Jan. 8, AAF’s Brightline inaugurated their Phase I route from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach. Throughout much of this segment, trains will be traveling at speeds of 79 mph or less.

Throughout the Phase II segment, from West Palm Beach to Orlando, trains can reach 125 mph.

In response to Amtrak’s high-speed derailment in Washington last December, a catastrophe that injured 62 riders and killed three, many are apprehensive of AAF’s next phase.

Federal officials confirm that the Cascades train was careening at 80 mph when the derailment occurred.

This month, Florida Sen. Debbie Mayfield (R-Melbourne) will be re-filing a bill that would allow for more regulatory oversight of high-speed passenger trains; the initial bill was indefinitely suspended in the Florida Congress last year.

In addition to endowing FDOT with more jurisdiction over private companies, Senate Bill 572 will make penalties more severe for violation of the Rail Safety Act. It will also endeavor to make high-speed rail companies more transparent to the public, by requiring more public reports on casualties and hazardous content. Though technically Brightline is not considered a high-speed train, the language of the bill applies to all trains exceeding 80 mph.

Article by: Adam Laten Willson

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