Port Canaveral officials promised Thursday to listen to concerns about two proposed projects that would bring rail links to the port’s soon-to-expand cargo operations.
Environmental advocates, condominium owners and a fishing captain raised red flags about the effect of the projects during a community briefing at the port.
“We don’t intend to railroad our community into a conclusion,” Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Walsh told the more than 75 people attending the briefing.
But he said the projects are important to the local economy and would help create 5,000 cargo-related jobs in the region within seven years and 15,000 jobs within 15 years.
Port Canaveral currently receives about 80 percent of its revenue from cruise operations and is trying to diversify by expanding its cargo business. Walsh said the rail links are crucial toward that effort.
The first project would connect the port’s cargo operations to rail lines in Port St. John via barges traveling through the Merritt Island barge canal and the Indian River, then to a new 2,000-foot-long rail link that would cross U.S. 1. Walsh said that project would cost $20 million and could be completed by May 2015.
Over Banana River
The other would link the port to rail lines in Titusville via a proposed 11-mile-long single-rail line, crossing the Banana River, that would connect to an existing Kennedy Space Center rail line. That project would cost $75 million, and could be completed by late 2017.
Environmental advocates at the meeting feared the negative impacts the port’s rail plans would have on the Indian River Lagoon and its animals.
Capt. Alex Gorichky III of Merritt Island, who operates the Local Lines Guide Service that specializes in kayak fishing, said he also is concerned about the effect on fishing and ecotourism businesses operating in that area.
Several residents of Sunrise Landing, a Port St. John condominium community just south of where the barge-to-rail link would be made, said they are worried.
‘Industrial slum’
Sunrise Landing resident Terry Skaggs said his community could become “an industrial slum” with the addition of the rail connection.
But another Sunrise Landing resident, Charles Zimmerman, said he supports the rail plan because of its potential benefits.
“We need people. We need jobs. We need traffic,” Zimmerman said.
Walsh said he will attend a condominium association meeting to explain the project in detail to residents and to address their concerns.
Walsh said the barge-to-rail system likely would operate only once a week initially, potentially expanding to three or four times a week as demand increases. He said the trains would be no longer than 25 cars.
The port is seeking federal and state grants to pay for most of that project.
Walsh said the port wants to have an open process, as it moves forward with environmental and other reviews.
Environmental advocate Maureen Rupe of Port St. John challenged him, saying: “I don’t think this process has been as open as what you’re making it to be. It’s certainly not as open as it should have been.”
“I’m just disappointed,” said Rupe, who is president of the Partnership for a Sustainable Future, a coalition of more than a dozen local environmental groups. “I don’t think you’re being open and transparent.”
Walsh said public briefings the port held Thursday are part of that process. He said he also has consistently brought the port’s rail plans up during monthly public meetings of the Canaveral Port Authority, as well as during presentations he has made in the community.
‘Spirited debate’
“We are OK about having a spirited public debate,” Walsh said. “We want to hear where the concerns are. We want to hear where the problems are. We are trying to do the right thing.”
“We are very early in the process,” Walsh said.
That’s especially true with the rail project tied to the KSC rail line, which will need to undergo extensive review and permitting before work could begin, and would need the official support of NASA, something the port still hasn’t received.
Walsh is hoping that a rail company would pay for the 11-mile connection.
The route of the new rail line remains under discussion, and Walsh said the port is trying to select a route with minimal impact on the lagoon, wildlife and communities. He said the trains would travel at no more than 15 mph, reducing the noise.
Walsh said he understands that, no matter what proposals are selected, “not everyone agrees” on a single plan.
“That’s why there are 57 flavors of ice cream,” Walsh said.
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649 or dberman@floridatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ByDaveBerman