Brevard backs Brightline, but stresses safety

Melbourne Mayor Kathy Meehan can recall clearly the evening of Feb. 20, 2010. It was a Saturday, she was home, and three teenage girls died nearby while walking across a train trestle over Crane Creek.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said last week. “The train whistle kept blowing and blowing. The traffic (on U.S. 1) was backed up and I called the police. They told me they had just had three fatalities. It haunts me to this day.”

The girls were hit by one of the freight trains crossing the trestle, part of the Florida East Coast Railway. At the time, authorities said, the girls, all students at Southwest Middle School, may not have heard the train soon enough to jump into the creek.

Freight trains travel at about 40 mph to 60 mph, industry sources say. But in about a year or two, FEC’s sister company, All Aboard Florida, is expected to send its new Brightline passenger trains into Brevard County on 235-mile trips between Miami and Orlando.

The company is expected to lay a second track for passenger service along the single track from Miami north to Cocoa, then lay an all-new track 40 miles along State Road 528 from Cocoa west to the Orlando International Airport.

Unlike Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties to the south, where activists and officials have spent recent years opposing All Aboard Florida loudly and publicly, Brevard County leaders have worked with the train company.

In fact, Meehan said, she can’t recall anyone contacting her in anger at All Aboard Florida.

“We’re very supportive of Brightline itself,” she said. “But they definitely need safety measures and [to] put in place protections for pedestrians, first responders and the children who come into downtown Melbourne.”

She couldn’t believe it, she said, when she heard four pedestrians already have been killed by Brightline trains, as the trains only recently started trial runs and partial service. The four were killed after trying to cross the tracks between Brightline stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

The Brightlines are planned to make 32 trips a day, 16 each way, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. In Brevard they would go over 21 crossings in Melbourne, nine in the unincorporated county, six in Cocoa, five in Rockledge, four in Grant-Valkaria and three in Palm Bay, records show.

And they’ll be going up to 110 mph, supporting the company’s goal to get passengers between Orlando and Miami in three hours or less. That’s two or three times as fast as the freight train that killed the girls. It would leave even less time, if any, to jump out of the way.

But under pressure from Florida’s two U.S. senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, All Aboard Florida is adding extra signs to its South Florida crossings, warning pedestrians not to cross the tracks.

When the company works its way to Brevard, however, is unknown. Bob Kamm, executive director of the Space Coast Transportation Planning Organization, said he recently discussed the matter with company officials.

“They don’t know how long it will take to lay the continuous rail, then do the crossing upgrades, then go west to Orlando. It’s all timing,” he said. “They’re now working on the (Fort Lauderdale to) Miami track. Once that’s done, they can bring their full attention to the track north of West Palm Beach.”

Part of the Brevard work, meanwhile, will be a new $26 million overpass at the Pineda Causeway, taking motorists over the FEC tracks instead of making them cross the railroad.

“It’s a win-win,” FEC Senior Vice President Bob LeDoux said.

It will be one less crossing for the FEC to maintain, he said, a job the county now has to pay for.

The state Department of Transportation has granted the county about $20 million toward the overpass. County purchasing officials have scheduled a bid opening on March 1. The job is expected to take almost two years.

Kamm said other crossings will be improved, but not with an overpass. About five years ago, he said, the county was planning to widen the Pineda crossing, from two lanes to four, and needed a permit from FEC. The rail company issued it, Kamm said, but only on condition that the county replace the crossing with an overpass in five years.

The TPO in 2016 asked for a new station and suggested two possible sites, a former FEC Railway passenger station straddling the Cocoa-Rockledge city limits and a parcel site on Michigan Avenue in Cocoa. The TPO is still waiting for the company’s review.

All Aboard Florida officials currently don’t have any planned stations between Miami and Orlando, other than West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. But they have said they would consider other stops once the trains are running the full route – if the project shows a profit.

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