Study: CSX line traffic may triple

Published: Monday, January 19, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 11:44 p.m.

OCALA - The proposed commuter rail service in Orlando will be the costliest railroad acquisition in U.S. history, a recent study says.

But far from those tracks, communities in Marion and Alachua counties will get more than the privilege of helping fund the $10.5-million-a-mile deal.

The train traffic in spots along CSX Transportation's S line - like Ocala, Belleview, Anthony, Hawthorne, Waldo and Starke - could potentially triple, or even quadruple, public records indicate.

And some observers believe that might happen even if the company's deal with the Florida Department of Transportation falls through.

Additional freight-train traffic along CSX's S line was always expected. The agreement, if finalized, would permit CSX to shift freight trains from its A line through Orlando to its S line to accommodate the commuter trains that would travel between DeLand and Poinciana.

Initially, that meant 30 to 33 trains a day instead of the 22 there was at the time the deal became public in 2006.

Currently, the train count now averages 14 a day.

But state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, an outspoken critic of the FDOT-CSX deal, is convinced the plan is to create a railroad "superfreight highway" through Florida - at taxpayer expense, and, with possibly as many as 50 trains a day.

The deal's terms peg the state's portion of the total $1.2 billion package at $795 million.

The FDOT, public records show, has committed at least $407 million to improve the S line. That begins in Callahan, northwest of Jacksonville, and runs the spine of the state to Lakeland, before veering east toward West Palm Beach and Miami.

Of that amount, $209 million was targeted to build five new overpasses along the S line - one in Ocala, two in Alachua County and two in Wildwood, according to the Aug. 2, 2006, pact between the FDOT and CSX.

The Ocala project, the $25-million overpass along Southwest 17th Street, seems to have been the first. It partially opened to traffic in December, and is anticipated to be fully operational by April.

But Ocala appeared set to get that overpass even if the FDOT-CSX agreement collapses - which can only happen if lawmakers refuse to accept the liability for accidents on the 61.5-mile commuter route.

In October 2006, senior FDOT officials debated in a series of e-mails how to move forward with the overpasses, even though the final details with CSX were not ironed out.

Kevin Thibault, FDOT's assistant secretary for engineering and operations, noted in one response that, "The Secretary (former FDOT Secretary Denver Stutler)committed to the Marion County TPO (Transportation Planning Organization) that the crossing at SR 464 (Southwest 17th Street) will be done, regardless of the outcome of the CSX negotiations."

Greg Slay, executive director of the Ocala-Marion County TPO, said a bridge was identified several years ago but was never designated a separate project or a priority.

"It wasn't something we were pursuing aggressively," said Slay, who lauded the overpass for removing a "continuous impediment" from 17th Street. "I think it's a worthwhile project," he observed.

The FDOT recently awarded another $25 million for the Wildwood projects. And overpasses are planned in Alachua County at railroad crossings near SR 26 and U.S. 301 east of Gainesville and at SR 20 near Hawthorne.

One FDOT document dated in May 2005 indicates they will be necessary.

The report noted that with upgrades to allow the diversion of the A line freight trains, the S line's capacity could jump to 43 to 54 trains a day - at least three times the number now rolling on those tracks.

CSX officials indicate such improvements were always in their plans. But taxpayer dollars are speeding them to fruition much faster.

Company spokesman Gary Sease told the Tampa Tribune in October 2007 that without state money, "There is no reason to move our A line traffic to the S line."

"We currently have adequate track and terminal capacity," Sease continued. "We are making the move to accommodate the new commuter rail service through Central Florida. Without that need, we would not likely make any major expansion to either of our lines in the near future, but would expand more gradually over time as traffic demands increase."

Sease added that CSX, given Florida's rising population and consumption, "will need to increase our capacity over time to meet future freight transportation needs. Expanding track capacity immediately would not be prudent or necessary."

Sease added that one advantage for CSX, in addition to resolving Orlando's 20-year push for commuter rail, is the company is "able to accelerate freight capacity expansion to meet the future needs of our state. Again, we would otherwise make the expansions over time, as we do throughout the country."

In a recent interview, Sease said those points still reflect CSX's position. But he seemed to dismiss the notion of a railroad superhighway.

As he told the Tribune in 2007, Sease said Florida's "hurricane exposure profile" indicates that putting all the freight traffic on one line would be illogical.

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