Coast Guard: Focus is on ensuring reasonable needs of navigation February 16, 2015

The Coast Guard’s top priority is making sure the reasonable needs of mariners are met, a Coast Guard commander told a meeting of MIASF Anchor Members last month in Fort Lauderdale when asked about the New River FEC rail bridge.

Commander Barry Dragon, director of Seventh Coast Guard District Bridge Program for the U.S. Coast Guard, said their job is to protect marine traffic, both commercial and pleasure, regardless of what All Aboard Florida requests. The Coast Guard, under the authority of Captain Austin Gould, commanding officer of the Miami Sector, will determine a bridge operation schedule that accommodate marine navigation needs that All Aboard Florida must comply with.

To determine what meets reasonable needs, Dragon says the Coast Guard takes all the comments they get into consideration and looks for patterns and timeframes. On weekdays, most commenters want the New River rail bridge up while it’s daylight, he said.

After it gathers information and publishes a notice of proposed rulemaking, there’s a 60-day comment period, Dragon says. Comments are still being accepted. Then they write the final rule, publish it for 60 days in the Federal Register, and it goes into effect if it’s OK. Before it goes into effect, the Coast Guard will do test deviations of the rule – for example, if it is open a certain portion of the hour, a test deviation might be to have it down for two-hour blocks.

If the bridge currently does not meet reasonable needs due to its condition, the Truman Hobbs Act says it can be replaced, but Congress has to fund the replacement, Dragon said. There is an algorithm to determine the financial impact, and Congress usually finances only a percentage of the actual cost.

Right now the bridge is automated and run remotely from Jacksonville, Dragon noted. The trains use a block system for safety – when they hit the block, the bridge goes down and they get a green light or else they have to start stopping. Because it is run from Jacksonville along with numerous other trains, sometimes it goes down and they forget to put it up after, or they leave it down to wait for next train. A possible improvement would be to have a bridge-tender, which would be more efficient and shorten the time the bridge would be down because the bridge-tender could radio the train, Dragon said.

When the bridge is not in compliance with current regulations, Dragon agreed there should be a way for boaters to report issues with it. Since the meeting, temporary signs with a Coast Guard phone number and email address have been made and were posted next to the bridge. Emails are preferred, Dragon said, and complaints should be informative and detailed, with information such as boat name, type, height, time of complaint, tide information and as much other information as possible. The complaint must be made by the operator of the boat.

When asked about the possibility of moving the trains west, Dragon said that’s irrelevant and that they only focus on the near future and the current conditions for movable bridges. “Our job is to make sure that the current bridge operation meets reasonable needs,” Dragon said.

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