Saturday, March 2

Federal grant to fund construction of new $218 million St. Lucie River railroad bridge

Some boaters are celebrating after learning that the federal government will fund a large portion of a brand-new St. Lucie River railroad bridge in Stuart.

For more than a year, boaters and elected officials have voiced concerns over Brightline running up to 32 trains across it.

When the trains cross, the drawbridge arms are down and boats larger than 6 feet can’t get through.

“You see a train go by, you wait, expecting it to go up, and it doesn’t go up,” recreational boater Mike Tommeraas said. “You just go, ‘Well, how long’s this going to be?’ And then typically, another train comes by.”

Tommeraas said since Brightline launched service to Orlando, it’s not uncommon for him to wait 30 minutes or longer for the arms to go up, and WPTV witnessed a freight train, followed by a Brightline train, backing up boat traffic.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., this summer called for the construction of a new, double-tracked, higher bridge that would allow for boats to pass underneath without needing the drawbridge arms to be lifted.

The city of Stuart sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in August asking for a $130.5 million grant to fund 60% of the bridge’s $218 million cost.

City Manager Mike Mortell said Monday that Mast’s office informed them that the grant was approved.

“[This] is just an incredible success story,” Mortell said.

Mortell said the new bridge, if built, will have a 17-foot clearance, which is much higher than its current 6-foot height.

“So over 85% of the boats that currently use the river will be able to go under the bridge when it’s closed,” Mortell said.

He also said because the bridge is double-tracked, two trains can run over it at a time, preventing backups. One of the concerns about keeping the drawbridge arms open longer included drivers getting stuck behind backed-up trains.

“Having the double-track will cut the road crossing in half, which will be great for vehicular traffic as well,” Mortell said.

“I just think it’s great for the boaters, recreational boaters especially like I am,” Tommeraas added. “They’ll have less problems getting across the waterway because most of what we want the waterway for is on the other side.”

However, not everyone benefits from it.

At the Indiantown Marina Center, most of the boats are much larger than 17 feet. Even with a new bridge, his customers, which come from the west coast of Florida, will still be stuck in the Okeechobee waterway.

“It’s Florida’s Panama Canal, basically,” CEO and owner Joe Walsh said.

“That’s a 97-foot motor yacht,” President Dan Romence said while pointing to a customer’s boat.

The marina is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit involving 13 marine businesses, who in May, announced they were suing the Florida East Coast Railway, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over unequal access to the water.

Since Brightline launched service to Orlando, Walsh said his business has already cut in half, and he doesn’t see that changing with the new bridge.

“We’re getting less vessels,” Walsh said. “We think the next step is to go back to the secretary of transportation and see if there can be something to get more money to build a proper bridge.”

Mortell said even though the federal grant only covers 60% of the new bridge’s cost, he doesn’t expect taxpayers to shoulder any of the cost.

Mortell said the Florida Department of Transportation has agreed to match $26 million, and said Brightline has agreed to apply for Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grants to cover the rest or shoulder the cost themselves.

Mortell said in terms of timeline, if all goes through, planning on the new bridge would likely begin in the first quarter of 2024, with construction expected to be complete at the end of 2027.

After that, the old bridge would be torn down, which is expected to take place in 2028.

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