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Why We Should Support Florida Railroads

Our new governor continues to draw praise from the media on his new directions for Florida. The most recent was the appointment of a respected University of Florida expert on water resources to the new post of chief science officer. Showing such concern for the environment is a sharp contrast with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ predecessor, who acted as if climate change did not exist. He delayed the state eight years in reacting to the water crisis affecting Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

He was also slow to move on transportation opportunities, turning down federal money for a study of a fast train between Orlando and Tampa. The only positive development in mass transit during his administration—Brightline, recently named Virgin Trains USA—was entirely a private  initiative.

Gov. Scott’s obsession with jobs and growth also appears to have been misguided, just leading to crowding up a state that needs to catch its breath while it figures out how to deal with overcrowded downtowns and the roads connecting them. Unlike DeSantis’ picks for most key jobs, Scott’s appointment of political toadies served only to weaken agencies key to solving our problems. It is almost as if DeSantis, without putting it in so many words, is out to reverse the unfortunate course for the state directed by Scott.

Always one to jump on a good thing, we presume to advise the new governor of the next reform goal he might pursue. And that is putting the state behind the effort to develop the one promising transportation development that continues to feel opposition from broad sections of the state. We speak of the highspeed Brightline train, which has drawn rave reviews from those who had ridden it, but has been criticized—to the point of lawsuits—for its dangerous road crossings, and for ignoring the Treasure Coast market on its northward path, eventually to Orlando.

The Treasure Coast concerns have already been addressed. Brightline intends to put a few stations between West Palm Beach and Cocoa Beach, where the train will leave the FEC tracks and use a new track to be built to the Orlando airport.  Those new tracks should have no grade-level crossings, enabling the train to make that leg even faster than its current speed. The railroad is also exploring additional stops at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and the Port of Miami, which should add appreciably to ridership.

As for the safety issue, that’s more complicated. There is no argument that a 79 mph speed at grade level in congested areas is dangerous, even with the enhanced crossings that have been installed. But a problem created by man—in this case a ridiculous number of crossings on a busy railroad—can be solved by man. Especially if Gov. DeSantis throws some state support behind the effort to begin rebuilding the FEC tracks.

To eliminate all the grade crossings is vastly expensive—and impractical. The crossings near the stations in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach don’t need fixing because the train slows approaching and leaving them. And there are other less busy crossings that could simply be closed off. That would be an inconvenience to motorists, but a benefit to the neighborhoods that would be made more private, just as they were when numerous cross streets along our busier highways were closed. There are less populated sections of track where closing a crossing or two would open up several miles of unobstructed right of way where the trains could safely speed up to 100 mph or more. That would help offset the time lost with the new stations.

However, there are some crossings where the tracks would have to be bridged. The busiest roads are the main problem, because at rush hour, inattentive drivers can find themselves stopped on the tracks as the gates go down and they hear the warning horn of an approaching train. Such bridges are expensive, especially if the construction involves removing buildings on both sides of the rails. That is where the state could help, but it would be only a fraction of the cost of the two just proposed new expressways in central Florida. Those roads will require dozens of new bridges, longer and much more costly than a bridge over two railroad tracks.

Those new roads, of course, are designed to speed journeys and reduce congestion, but history has shown that fast new roads tend to quickly generate their own traffic. In contrast, the railroad, one of the few mass transportation steps in the last decade, is designed to relieve congestion. We should support it. So should the governor.