Martin County: Tender needed at St. Lucie railroad bridge

Martin County officials on Thursday called on the U.S. Coast Guard to require a bridge tender at the Florida East Coast Railway drawbridge over the St. Lucie River, pointing to the increased rail traffic that All Aboard Florida’s Brightline passenger train service could bring to the trestle.

In a three-page letter to the Coast Guard, Deputy County Engineer Terry Rauth said it was critical an “onsite, constant bridge tender” is needed to monitor the nearly 80-year-old span.

Image of Florida East Coast railroad bridge at mile 7.4 at Stuart on display at front of auditorium at Blake Library in Stuart Thursday evening, November 13, 2014, during an information gathering session hosted by the United Coast Guard.   (Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post)

Image of Florida East Coast railroad bridge at mile 7.4 at Stuart on display at front of auditorium at Blake Library in Stuart Thursday evening, November 13, 2014, during an information gathering session hosted by the United Coast Guard. (Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post)

Rauth also called on the Coast Guard to require that the bridge be locked down for no more than 30 minutes every hour. The county pointed to its 15-month study of vessel traffic at the bridge, which was released Thursday, saying it was critical that Coast Guard ensure the waterway remain open to boat traffic “no less than 30 minutes of every hour.”

All Aboard’s Brightline service plans to run 32 trains a day — 16 round trips — on the Florida East Coast Railway between Miami and Orlando. Service is expected to start in 2017.

The letter comes as Coast Guard officials evaluate potential rules changes at the bridge. Martin officials have argued Brightline’s trains could make it more difficult for boaters to navigate by the drawbridge.

“The operating rules for the St. Lucie Bridge will be inextricably entwined with current and permitted future growth of traffic on the associated rail line,” Rauth wrote in the letter. “Projected increases in freight rail traffic, the proposed introduction of passenger rail traffic, accurate measures of current maritime activity and projections of future maritime activity are all key to ensuring the reasonable needs of navigation for the foreseeable future.”

Martin County’s analysis of boat traffic at the St. Lucie River railroad bridge, which was conducted by a private engineering firm, recorded 90,808 vessels passing under the span during the 15-month period from June 2014 through Sept. 2015.

An average of 209.7 boats per day crossed under the bridge, the study found.

The county said traffic counts at the bridge peaked between March and August, when more than 250 boats per day crossed under the span. Traffic on the weekend was also “significantly higher” than other days, the study found.

The St. Lucie River bridge is one of three, including the Loxahatchee River bridge and New River bridge in Fort Lauderdale, that All Aboard Florida has said will get upgrades to allow them to be raised and lowered more quickly.