In a major initiative to cut down on deaths and injuries along Brightline’s rail corridor, the U.S. Government has allocated $25 million for safety improvements between Miami-Dade and Brevard counties, railroad and government officials announced Monday.
The money is helping to cover $45 million in measures that will include improvements at 328 roadway-railroad grade crossings and 33 miles of pedestrian protection features in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard counties along the Florida East Coast Railway line, which is used by Brightline.
Brightline currently serves the downtowns of Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Miami with a daily schedule that see trains potentially reaching speeds of 79 mph.
The safety measures, which will be installed throughout 2023, will become even more critical when the line opens a $2.7 billion, 170-mile extension between West Palm Beach and Orlando early next year. Construction is more than 80% complete, according to the company.
Since February, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration it oversees have focused on a rash of rail deaths in Florida, conducting meetings among rail operators and South Florida local government officials including law enforcement to pinpoint problem areas and to encourage public agencies to apply for millions in federal grant money.
The latest round of funding, which was jointly pursued last spring by the FDOT, Brightline and the Florida East Coast Railway, was announced Monday at the Brightline station in downtown Fort Lauderdale. U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, both Democrats representing districts in Broward, and Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, a Republican from Miami-Dade, said they worked in concert to help deliver the money to South Florida.
The grant, from the U.S. DOT’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program, drew rare bipartisan support from South Florida’s congressional delegation. Besides the three House members who appeared at the station, it has the backing of Reps. Frederica Wilson, Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel, as well as U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio according to a company statement. Local municipalities and all of the region’s county metropolitan planning organizations, which help set transportation policy, also supported it.
“Brightline is a critical part of Florida’s transportation network and has significantly improved the lives of many Floridians through an easy and efficient method of travel through South Florida,” said Diaz-Balart.
“It is a huge private investment,” he added. “When we are looking at these kinds of funds it requires the appropriations committee to get it done. We don’t deal with partisan lines. We work together to get things done for Florida and for South Florida and this another example of what we can do when we work together as a team.”
Wasserman Schultz suggested it’s not possible to keep everyone safe from harm around railroads, particularly those bent on committing suicide. She appealed to the public to exercise common sense when driving across tracks, especially when they are in a hurry.
“We want Brightline to be in the news for all of the right reasons,” she said. “Unfortunately there have been too many incidents, some of which [are] when you’re dealing with a sadly determined person who wants to end their life on the tracks.”
“But, there are also people that really don’t understand, and aren’t necessarily prevented from being able to cross those tracks or try to race the gate,” she said. “I mean, my God, are you really in that much of a hurry?”
The FDOT made its own separate announcement, citing a commitment to safety by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. No one from the state made a public appearance at the Fort Lauderdale ceremony.
“Governor DeSantis and the department are committed to keeping Florida moving by continually seeking investments and opportunities to ensure Florida has a safe and strong transportation system,” state Transportation Secretary Jared W. Perdue said in a prepared statement.
“As I always say, these things take a village,” Brightline President Patrick Goddard said of the support. “This was a statewide effort.”
In their joint application, Brightline, the FEC and the state said the companies and Florida would kick in $10 million apiece to supplement the $25 million in federal funds.
The upgrades, as earlier reported by the South Florida Sun Sentinel and others, include the following, according to the grant application:
—Rail dynamic envelopes: Consisting of Xs painted on roadways near rail crossings, the visual warning helps keep drivers out of crossing danger zones. The state, according to the application, deployed the technique in early 2020 after a pilot program indicated that the number of vehicles that stopped on or too close to the tracks “was reduced by at least 15%.”
—Delineators, raised pavement markers, and edge striping: Delineators are 4-foot-high reflective plastic posts that warn drivers that they are approaching a crossing. In 2018, according to the application, the Long Island Railroad in New York “installed high-visibility safety delineators and striping at railroad crossings. Results indicated an 85% reduction in right-of-way intrusions by motor vehicles and 100% reduction in train/vehicle crashes due to vehicle right-of-way intrusion.”
—Fencing and landscaping: Many miles of the FEC corridor, particularly in densely populated downtowns, are easily accessible to pedestrians from nearby sidewalks and roadways. Sunrail, the commuter line in Central Florida, “observed a 91% reduction in trespassers over the two years following the installation of fencing in the Sanford area in 2018,” the application says.
—“Do Not Stop on Tracks” and crisis support signage: Many motorists do not recognize the potential hazards facing them when they approach a crossing.
The money is part of a broader series of initiatives by Brightline, the federal and state Departments of Transportation, as well as local law enforcement to curb motorist and pedestrian deaths along the FEC line.
Rail corridor deaths have plagued all of the inter-city lines operating trains in South Florida, including Brightline, Tri-Rail, the Florida East Coast Railway freight carrier and Amtrak, the national passenger rail service. While trespassing and suicide incidents constitute some of the causes, rail crossing violations by motorists who try to beat trains across the tracks are another major contributor to fatalities, industry and law enforcement officials say.
But the death toll has been the highest involving Brightline trains since the company inaugurated paid service in 2018, according to a continuing analysis by The Associated Press. The tally now exceeds 60.
In June, Brightline and law enforcement agencies in Broward led by the Broward Sheriff’s Office conducted “Operation Crossing Guard” to increase public awareness about safety hazards along the rail line and to reduce the number of deaths at rail crossings.
During the 11-day program, more than 500 citations were issued: 157 for stopping on railroad tracks, 146 for driving around closed gates, 122 for stopping too close to closed gates, 90 for blocking intersections and 25 for pedestrians walking around closed gates. The citations were delivered in BSO districts in Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach, Oakland Park and Dania Beach.