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December 2014 - McCormick Place

It appears to be a misunderstanding. When All Aboard Florida held a series of public meetings recently, people up and down the coast understood the message quite differently. In Miami, the plan for a new fast train between Miami and Orlando was met with giddy enthusiasm. Broward County’s reaction was much the same. A meeting that seemed heavy with business interests saw the transportation mode as a major benefit to the county, especially downtown Fort Lauderdale.

But when the information train entered Palm Beach County it was not seen as a sleek futuristic vehicle, but a throwback to the days of noisy, smoke-belching iron horses, throwing cinders along the way.

Most of the people who showed for the meetings understood the train not as a great transportation advancement and economic benefit, but rather as a nuisance, blocking intersections and creating noise. And with only one station in West Palm Beach, they saw it as not doing any good for the people living along the 40-mile stretch between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm. Another worry is the train possibly interfering with ambulances heading to hospitals.

That last argument, which has been echoed in letters to the Palm Beach Post, is kind of stupid; it could be made against superhighways just as well. The Post is taking the new train seriously, with almost daily stories or comments from readers. Not all of them are negative. One writer sensibly observed that we need to think more regionally, understanding that All Aboard Florida is good for South Florida in general.

Such regional thinking has historically been lacking in the state. Oddly enough, one exception is a train, Tri-Rail, which was launched in the late 1980s as a cooperative effort of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. What seems to be forgotten in the All Aboard Florida discussion is Tri-Rail, which has announced plans to move some of its trains to the FEC tracks – where they should have been all along.

In selling its plan, the FEC people seem to downplay the latter event, with good reason. If people are upset about 32 trains a day, what would they say to perhaps another dozen or more Tri-Rail commuter trains using the same tracks. And Amtrak is considering switching its long-distance trains from the western CSX tracks to the FEC, which makes sense. If people in Palm Beach County understood that, the outcry would be even louder.

But what few seem to understand, and the papers generally have not highlighted this point, is that the inconveniences associated with passenger traffic on the FEC will ultimately be overwhelmed by the advantages. The fact is, this railroad should have been rebuilt years ago, eliminating grade crossings and dealing with the very real problem where the railroad crosses waterways.

If anyone needs a reminder of the importance of the marine industry to South Florida, the recent Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show provided it. A show that began 55 years ago in an armory far from the ocean and connecting waterways, has grown to seven venues and, true to its name, international impact. And it is this industry, more than any other entity, which could be seriously affected by the new trains. The biggest problem is downtown Fort Lauderdale, where the lift bridge across the New River is already a problem for the busy marine activity along the river. It is clear that this must be addressed, either with a bridge or a tunnel. With all the high-rise construction going on near the tracks, a bridge does not seem practical, and freight trains could not handle the grade. A tunnel is a different story, but it would take long approaches to be feasible for both passenger and freight traffic. And, of course, it would be expensive. It would require government funding, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the Interstate highway system has cost.

Other waterway intersections, such as the broad St. Lucie River in Stuart, could be solved with a bridge, at least for passenger trains which can easily handle the grade. They already do on the CSX track across the New River next to Interstate 95. It is used by both Tri-Rail and Amtrak.

The point is that All Aboard Florida should be considered the beginning of a long-term reconstruction of Henry Flagler’s railroad. Bridges over the tracks at points that won’t create too much disturbance to existing buildings would free up stretches where trains could really move out, perhaps up to 100 mph.

If folks in Palm Beach County and points north understood that someday they could commute from Jupiter to Fort Lauderdale in 45 minutes, with a few stops along the way, or get to Miami’s American Airlines arena in half the time it takes by car, the sounds of protest would soon abate.

Despite the present clamor, the FEC does not seem worried that its plan can be spiked. It is moving ahead with construction of a spectacular four-square block mixed-use development at its Miami terminal, and building its stations in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach.

The railroad knows it is on the right side of history. It will just take time for people to understand what they misunderstood.