A railway track less than a half-mile long could open the future for freight and passenger rail traffic in Palm Beach County.
On Thursday, the federal Department of Transportation announced it would pay $13.75 million of the $47.26 million project to build connector tracks in West Palm Beach’s Northwood neighborhood and at a location in Miami-Dade County.
That opens transfers of freight trains between the two tracks that will better accommodate increased business from the Panama Canal expansion and free the FEC tracks for long-discussed commuter rail service.
“Being able to switch back and forth is going to be really good for the economy,” said West Palm Beach Commissioner Shanon Materio, who serves on the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization board.
The grant completes funding for the project, which brings together the state DOT, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, Tri-Rail’s operator, and the FEC and CSX railroads as partners. The timing coincides with a surge of rail activity in South Florida.
All Aboard Florida is developing an express passenger rail from Miami to Orlando that will use the FEC tracks for 85 percent of the route. FEC Railway is associated with Florida East Coast Industries, which owns All Aboard Florida.
Local governments throughout South Florida are also developing plans for commuter traffic along the FEC tracks. Although FECI is building a second set of tracks for the passenger rail project, a decrease of freight trains will ease scheduling of intercity and commuter service.
The FEC tracks have about 13 daily freight trains and the CSX tracks have four. All Aboard Florida plans to run 32 trains a day and the commuter Coastal Link would have 122 running between the two tracks, according to the grant application.
The connector also is key to expanding Tri-Rail north to Jupiter, said Palm Beach MPO Executive Director Nick Uhren.
Ultimately, the connector is the most efficient way to accomplish all the rail goals for South Florida, he said.
“(Freight) rail transportation does not need to be on the Eastern Coast,” Port of Palm Beach Director Manny Almira said recently.
Having two railways transporting freight in South Florida will get trucks off the roadways and be cost effective, he said. And it will be no problem for the port, because the connection is nearby.
The first phase of the project will rehabilitate an unused connector track at 27th Street in West Palm Beach. That should be ready by July 2015, said Fred Wise, rail coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation.
The second connector track along 25th Street should be operational by January 2017. That track allows movement from the CSX tracks to the FEC tracks for northbound trains, a transfer that requires backing up if using the current track location.
Building the Northwood connector along 25th Street will require four businesses to be moved and right of way to be acquired on 15 parcels of property, according to the grant application
Wise said state transportation officials had been talking to FEC Railway and CSX Transportation for years to try to reconnect the tracks, but only recently did all the necessary factors converge, especially the Port of Miami upgrades undertaken by FEC.
“In addition to the funding is the fact with our focus on enhancing our economic competitiveness and preparing to be the true gateway for international trade in South Florida … all of these things together made this project more of a priority,” he said.
And it will make post-hurricane recovery faster, he said, as well as give South Florida rail an alternative during other emergencies or construction.
$29 million - Florida Department of Transportation
$13.8 million - TIGER grant
$2.5 million - South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (Tri-Rail)
$1 million - Florida East Coast Railway
$1 million - CSX Transportation