Dual Standard: Roads vs. Rails

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, April 15, 2014 No Comment(s)

These downtown 
consider themselves 
an endangered species.
There seems to be a double standard at work when it comes to transportation in South Florida – depending on whether it’s roads or rail. Roads first. There is an enormous amount of high-rise construction going on – mainly in Fort Lauderdale – that will increase the downtown population dramatically. Nobody seems to know the exact figure. But, anyone who hasn’t driven U.S. 1 in five years would not believe it is the same city. And nobody seems to know how all these new residents, if all the units underway are occupied, are going to get around. People living in or near downtown are already complaining about traffic.
Particularly hard hit are some of Florida’s best neighborhoods, between the heart of the city and the beach. Their attraction, aside from the fact that they are pretty places with beautiful old trees or that they’re expensive waterfront property, is their extraordinary convenience. They surround Las Olas Boulevard’s shopping and entertainment and are near the beach. Throw in an airport that, under the right traffic conditions, is only 15 minutes away, and you have a living environment that has few comparisons to anywhere. Many people could walk to schools and churches, although few do. But down the road that may be the fastest way to get around.
There is a current conflict between commercial and residential interests. The new construction is just part of it. Las Olas Boulevard merchants, a group with clout, want to slow traffic on that busy street. There is a proposal to effectively narrow it to two lanes by permitting on-street parking, extending the median and other changes. But already drivers enroute from the beach to downtown have taken to cutting through residential streets to save time. One objective of the traffic plan is safety. There have been people killed on Las Olas.
But making a busy, four-lane road safer has the effect of making the side streets far less safe. As one who lives there, and has benefitted by a city decision 25 years ago to protect neighborhoods by closing some streets (as has happened all around town), we are eyewitnesses to the fact that drivers cutting through tend to go dangerously fast on narrow streets. They are in a hurry all the time. Cars have been clocked on side streets at 50 mph. These are oak-shaded streets where people jog, stroll with dogs, walk baby carriages and admire the charming old houses, and some spectacular new houses that have been built because the neighborhood is so livable. And these residents wonder what it will be like when so many newcomers are added to the traffic bottleneck; and wonder if those who permit the new building even give the matter a thought. The affected homeowner groups are especially concerned that the people who currently live there have been largely ignored.
Now, to the rails – a totally different situation. The FEC tracks, which go through the heart of cities all along the coast, will soon be used for a fast train from Miami to Orlando. And there is a plan to bring Tri-Rail and possibly even Amtrak to the same tracks, where they should have been all along. But unlike the indifference to street congestion, the papers are full of the problems associated with the rail project. The Palm Beach Post has been particularly sensitive to the consequences associated with increased rail traffic. There is justified concern for the marine industry, as rivers and waterways will be blocked by the railroad’s slow-motion lift bridges more frequently. The problem of numerous grade crossings has also been covered. Some will have to be closed if the trains are to come anywhere near their announced schedule, creating inconvenience for many motorists, and perhaps slowing emergency vehicles.
The federal government has chimed-in, citing standards for fast trains. A government spokesman said 110 mph for All Aboard Florida is unrealistic, even in rural areas to the north. This is no Northeast Corridor, where there are almost no grade crossings from New York to Washington, D.C., and where fences keep people from getting near the speeding Acela trains.
To its credit, the FEC does not seem to be whitewashing these concerns. To the contrary, it seems to invite a dialogue. It knows better than anyone else the challenge it faces to bring an old-fashioned railroad into the 21st century. The various rail entities are cooperating. Eventually the long, slow freight trains will be moved to the western CSX tracks. As we have noted here before, in the long run, the FEC needs to be modernized, with bridges or tunnels at key intersections of main roads and waterways. The cost will be enormous, but so will the benefits.
The fact is that government is not waiting until the rail problems arise to anticipate them, and seek solutions. But that’s not the case with traffic on the roads. Double standard.

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