Industry questions arise at Port of Miami rail project picks up steam
By Risa Polansky
A plan for restoring and upgrading direct freight rail access to Miami's seaport is taking shape as port and rail officials work on federal stimulus funding applications — but the proposed project is raising questions among industry players.
Port and rail officials are seeking stimulus dollars to restore and upgrade on-port rail infrastructure and a Florida East Coast Railway branch connecting the seaport to the mainland.
The idea is to transport cargo by rail to the railway's existing Hialeah intermodal yard, which would serve as an inland port with easy access to West Dade warehouses.
The new-and-improved rail connection — designed to allow for faster, safer, quieter trains — would keep container trucks off of downtown streets by allowing cargo to be loaded and unloaded at the Hialeah inland port.
One concern from the industry's end: the federal government would pay to make the capital project possible, but would there be added costs to users?
"We're not aware of the plans, and I would like to get complete details," said Barbara Pimentel, executive vice president of the Florida Customs Brokers & Forwarders Association in Miami.
She questioned, though, "Will there be additional costs? What's the cost to the end user?"
Should the rail project move forward, cargo would need to be loaded onto a train, off the train and onto a truck, and off the truck at the freight's destination.
Steve Erb, vice president of Ports America Florida operations, raised the same concern.
"I would question the cost — who's going to pay for the three handlings to get it out there for the 11-mile rail dray that's involved?" he said.
Railway President David Rohal acknowledged via e-mail that "the costs of rail service are borne by its users."
He added that "FEC also owns and operates FEC Highway Services, our company that currently provides drayage trucking service between our intermodal yard and warehouses, so FEC expects to offer service to the origin orfinal destination of the container, not just to the inland port."
Mr. Erb said he sees benefits if the proposed project would lend itself to long-distance rail opportunities.
"If we're talking long-distance haulage by rail out of the Port of Miami, that is a huge economic benefit to the port with regards to being able to develop additional business," he said.
Long-distance rail transport is in the cards, Mr. Rohal said.
"Yes, the initiative lends itself to extending the economic reach of the Port of Miami by using rail transportation for longer distances," he wrote, noting that Florida East Coast "currently serves Orlando, Jacksonville and Atlanta markets, all of which will be within reach of[Miami's port] via FEC."
Now, about 10% of seaport cargo moves via the Florida East Coast Railway, railway documents say.
Mr. Rohal laid out more details of the port rail plan in an interview.
It calls for upgrading Florida East Coast's now-underutilized "port lead," an existing six-mile branch off of the main railway line.
Up to $1.5 billion is up for grabs through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery federal stimulus program.
"We see the great good sense of having direct rail access to the port. The condition of the port lead today, we only operate at a very slow speed," Mr. Rohal said — 10 miles per hour maximum.
With the stimulus dollars — probably about $30 million is needed, he said — officials hope to make improvements to allow half-mile-long trains run at about 30 miles per hour.
"Thinking about the impact on our neighbors, we'd like to be able and need to be able to operate at a speed that clears the grade crossing relatively quickly… so our thought and our request in our grant is to request the resources to put the speeds in and the crossing protection in," he said.
The traffic-light cycle in downtown Miami is a minute and 40 seconds, Mr. Rohal added.
Each train could handle about 125 containers and pass any spot on the corridor in one minute, he said.
The stimulus application is to include a request for money to install warning devices and gate mechanisms to create "quiet zones" with added protections to prevent drivers from weaving around gates.
Trains passing through the zones wouldn't need to blow whistles, sparing area residents the noise.
"That really should make this all but invisible to the public," Mr. Rohal said — "certainly a minimal amount of inconvenience and a terrific improvement over the kinds of effects that large numbers of trucks could cause."
The number of trains that would run from the port "is going to entirely depend on the decisions of the maritime interests and the folks that control the freight," he said.
At the absolute maximum — based on the greatest cargo amounts the port projects, and on eliminating trucks entirely — there could be a train every two hours, Mr. Rohal said.
But initially, one train would probably run a day, "and when the demand for the service grows, we'll add another train."
There's no set direction now as to what time of day trains would run.
"We would set it up to make it work for the shippers," he said.
Project plans are still in early stages, Port Director Bill Johnson said in an interview last week.
But "There's weekly conversation going on between the Port of Miami and FEC officials on this — weekly."
Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez is pushing for rail to an inland port as an alternative to the planned $1 billion-plus Port of Miami tunnel project.
Rather than spend more than $1 billion to dig twin tunnels to the mainland, transport cargo by rail to an inland port to keep trucks off downtown streets, he wrote in a memo last week.
He was unavailable for comment, but a spokesman said the commissioner was unaware of the port and railways' plans.
Mr. Martinez has been vocal about the existing island port's limited capacity for growth and suggests investing in an inland cargo port rather than pouring money into cargo-related operations at the seaport that he expects the county will one day outgrow.
Larry Foutz, transportation systems manager for the Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the idea of an inland port has not yet come to its Freight Transportation Advisory Committee.
He's considering adding it to the Aug. 26 agenda.
Direct rail from the port is not the sole answer to improving cargo operations, he said.
But "everything you can do to make each mode more efficient is something that should be looked into to keep the port more competitive. Improving freight operations in and out of the port would make that aspect of freight movement more competitive."