News & Reviews News Wire Coast Guard to impose twice-hourly bridge openings on Brightline route

Coast Guard to impose twice-hourly bridge openings on Brightline route

By Bob Johnston | June 9, 2023

| Last updated on February 4, 2024

'Temporary deviation' in Stuart, Fla., could delay passenger, freight, and highway traffic

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Freight train with two locomotives and LNG tender crossing bridge
A northbound Florida East Coast freight crosses the single-track bridge at Stuart, Fla., in January 2017. A Coast Guard decision to change bridge-opening procedure could have a major impact on Brightline operating plans. Bob Johnston

STUART, Fla. — The U.S. Coast Guard has issued an order changing rules for opening Florida East Coast Railway’s single-track drawbridge over the Okeechobee Waterway of the St. Lucie River that could seriously disrupt Brightline’s plan to begin hourly service between Miami and Orlando this summer.

The change could also result in miles-long FEC freight trains blocking six highway crossings in downtown Stuart for an extended period.

The “temporary deviation” order,” which the Coast Guard says is to test the new drawbridge operating plan, will be in effect June 21 through Dec. 17. It dictates that the bridge must open at 15 and 45 minutes past every hour and stay open for up to 15 minutes to allow all boats to pass. An approaching train in the track circuit at the designated opening time could delay the opening no more than 5 minutes.

The drawbridge recently received mechanical and electrical upgrades to shorten opening times and improve reliability [see “FEC begins drawbridge rehabilitation …,” Trains News Wire, April 19, 2023]. Currently, it remains open for marine traffic; when a train approaches, boaters receive an 8-minute advance notice the bridge will close.

The order says the new rule “allows the drawbridge to operate on a more predictable schedule and allow for the reasonable usage of competing modes of transportation.” In fact, the short time it would take Brightline trains to cross would keep the waterway blocked for no more than 15 minutes in each instance — just not necessarily at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour. The order as published in the Federal Register is available here, along with a solicitation of comments.

Two-track railroad main line in downtown area of Florida city
Downtown Stuart, Fla. The new drawbridge plan will increase the possibility that freight trains will block as many as six grade crossings. Bob Johnston

The hourly schedules Brightline issued in May have been devised so trains avoid conflicts on the mostly single-track, 125-mph segment between Cocoa and Orlando International Airport [see “Brightline tickets now on sale …,” News Wire, May 17, 2023] Based on those schedules, News Wire estimates most Brightline trains would pass through Stuart at 22 and 42 minutes past the hour. Though most freight trains operate at night through the area, any northbound train waiting for a Brightline train to clear could conceivably block downtown Stuart’s six highway crossings through two bridge opening cycles.

News Wire attempted to reach the Coast Guard’s Florida bridge management specialist to ascertain whether any of these factors were considered. That call was not returned.

The Palm Beach Post reports Brightline and Florida East Coast said in a joint statement that they are prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to reverse the decision and cannot comply with the Coast Guard directive. Brightline, which said the decision “will also impact freight and commerce throughout the entire state of Florida,” said it expected to lose more than 50% of its customers, which would threaten its ability to pay off private activity bond stockholders.

The Post also reports that U.S. Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) said in a Facebook post that he supports the Coast Guard decision and lobbied for the ruling that has been issued.

Man standing in front of palm tree
Joe Catrambone, president of the Stuart Chamber of Commerce

This didn’t surprise longtime Stuart Chamber of Commerce President Joe Catrambone.

On Friday, he told Trains News Wire, “Mast believes what he is doing is right for his constituents, which at this point are mainly members of the marine industry in his ear. He’s been this way with Brightline from the beginning; he’s cut them no slack at all.”

One of Mast’s district offices is located across the street from FEC tracks in Stuart. If freight trains regularly block downtown crossings for an hour, “people are not going to be happy and he’s going to have pay the consequences, for sure,” Catrambone says. “Mast has more concern for the people to navigate [the river] than moving people or freight — that’s the bottom line.”

Marine interests near the drawbridge filed suit in April, seeking an injunction against Brightline’s request to keep the drawbridge closed up to 45 minutes per hour between 5 a.m. and 9:45 p.m. [see “Businesses sue to block drawbridge plan …,” News Wire, May 1, 2023]. Michael Payne, a lawyer representing those interests, told the Post the Coast Guard decision “is basically the injunction we wanted. … We may not pursue this any further as long as the decision stands up.”

— Updated June 18 to correct error in last paragraph on amount of time Brightline wanted bridge closed per hour.

16 thoughts on “Coast Guard to impose twice-hourly bridge openings on Brightline route

  1. That bridge was the only spot that they didn’t double track…. All the other bridges include the other drawbridge were double tracked. It’s supposed to be done in the ‘future’. Bet they regret that decision now.

  2. I also wonder about the reliability of a huge structure moving up and down like an elevator multiple times an hour. It will breakdown eventually. Then what happens?

  3. As usual no one wants to compromise on the operation of the bridge. It most likely will result in a court fight. Hopefully some better agreement can be worked out since money was invested to make opening and closing the bridge faster. To build a new higher bridge would take time and be costly to both FEC and Brightline to accomplish. Delays to both the freight and passenger trains will only hurt the government trying to reduce carbon emissions and highway traffic in the area.

    1. JOHN —- You noticed that most along the east coast most boat traffic under the railroad lift bridges is recreational?

  4. Rep Bruce Mast has been against Brightline from the very beginning that the railroad was founded and built. Apparently the wealthy boat and pleasure craft owners are very happy and could care less about their fellow residents who live in Stuart and the hardship and hazards this ruling will create. I wouldn’t be surprised that these boat owners give generously to whatever campaign funds that Rep Mast needs to stay in office and run for reelection.
    Joseph C. Markfelder

    1. I think you’ve got it figured out. Don’t forget the non-boater NIMBY’s that just want to ruin Brightline. I hope this gets tossed out in court. There has to be a way to accommodate boats and trains if each side gives a little.

  5. Another GOP Florida Representative acting without looking at all the facts. Our local Florida Representative said when the town expands that FEC will build a flyover, I just laughed.

    1. The ultimate goal is a new, double track drawbridge that’s higher than the present and will allow more boats to pass while closed. This is likely the politicos’ way of “pushing” that goal forward.

  6. Too bad the FRA and FTA aren’t industry booster puppets doing industry dirty work with Federal authority like the FAA and Coast Guard are for aviation and maritime. The Coast Guard should be stripped of all authority save for rescuing people out of the water.

  7. It will take a massive new bridge 60 feet in the air for Brightline if this stands. And years to build it getting through all the permitting red tape.

    1. And of course the City of Stuart and especially the boaters do not want to pay for that higher bridge, which only would benefit them.

    1. You’re not the only one. When downtown Stuart gets blocked regularly for for an hour at a time, businesses and people will suffer.
      There will be people die because the hospital was built on the wrong side of the tracks from the main population.
      But the vocal boaters will be happy because they got what they wanted.

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