Rail traffic may rise in region


Published: Saturday, January 19, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 11:27 p.m.

A Florida Department of Transportation project to bring commuter rail service to Central Florida could mean increased freight traffic to rail lines in Alachua County and a new overpass on State Road 26 in Orange Heights.

The $491 million project, which would add commuter trains to a 61.5-mile stretch of CSX rail line in the Orlando area, would route roughly eight or nine freight trains per day from that rail line onto the CSX line that cuts through Hawthorne, Waldo and other parts of eastern Alachua County, said Fred Wise, manager of the FDOT's Rail Office. To help accommodate the expected increase in train delays, the FDOT is planning to build an overpass on SR 26 near Orange Heights sometime in 2010, when the increased freight traffic is expected, Wise said.

The project has met resistance in cities like Lakeland, where the downtown area is bisected by the rail line that will receive extra freight traffic. Polk County legislators have decried the project, saying frequent train delays will hamper downtown business and disrupt residents' lives.

U.S. 301 in Waldo and State Road 20 in Hawthorne already have overpasses over the rail line.

Wise said FDOT employees also have met with officials in Starke to improve signals at rail crossings and make other safety-related changes.

"The goal is to mitigate the impacts of this to make sure there's a smooth transition to the increase in freight traffic," Wise said.

Waldo Mayor Louie Davis said the U.S. 301 overpass should prevent most traffic problems in his city, located northeast of Gainesville. But he said he worries about pedestrian traffic on the two city roads and one county road in town that cross the rail line.

"My main concern is that if you increase the number of trains per day, you increase the probability of accidents involving the train," Davis said. "Pedestrians don't really have the option of using the overpass instead of the smaller roads, so that's something that worries me."

Waldo served as a stop for passenger trains on that CSX rail line until a few years ago, said Phil Denton, organizer of Yulee Railroad Days, a multi-day festival that celebrates railroad history in communities like Waldo.

Denton said though the increase in train traffic could add some delays, it has symbolic significance for the area and could even mean the return of passenger service through Alachua County in the future.

"I know one thing for sure: It's better having a live train track than a dead one," Denton said. "It's good for commerce, good for industry and good for the town to keep access to the train tracks open. Having the train tracks still in use rather than yanked up presents opportunities for the future."

Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088 or reinina@gvillesun.com.

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