Source: Florida Today
The rail would extend from the port’s North Cargo Area, cross over the Banana River, enter KSC on Merritt Island south of KARSPark, then head north up the east side of KSC. There, it would link with the center’s existing rail, which crosses the Indian River Lagoon via the Jay-Jay Bridge, and then connect with the Florida East Coast Railway mainline near Titusville.
The Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency with jurisdiction over rail projects, will oversee the environmental study process, which officials estimate could take 12 to 16 months.
The federal agency is reviewing air, water and noise pollution; wildlife and habitat impacts; reduced property values; archeological and other concerns.
Here are among the top five areas of concern cited by critics of the proposal cited at two recent local public hearings about the project:
1. Indian River Lagoon
Concern: The new rail would require driving concrete pilings 70 to 90 feet beneath the Banana River bottom, port officials say. The beginnings of the track from the port also would include filling in a few hundred feet of the Banana River to create a causeway to support the rail.
Fishermen worry the new causeways and rail will choke off the lagoon’s natural flow, killing one of the last remaining, virtually untouched seagrass strongholds.
Anglers’ suspicions about worsened water quality caused by causeways surfaced soon after the earthen strips of land were put in to support lagoon bridges, most more than 50 years ago. Shortly after the causeways went in, fewer fish seemed to come around, longtime residents say.
The strong smell of rotting algae grew more common, especially where the causeways met land. Algae can clump up and decay near causeways, emitting a rotten-egg hydrogen sulfide gas familiar to longtime residents and sometimes toxic to marine organisms.
“I’ve seen the depletion and degradation of the lagoon firsthand,” Alex Gorichky, a Merritt Island charter guide said during a recent public hearing in Titusville about the rail proposal.
“We’ve just spent, as a county, millions of dollars to bring ecotourism here,” Gorichky added. “Yet another choking causeway going across the lagoon is something that can potentially harm it further than it’s been harmed already.”
Counterpoint: Port officials say the berm for the causeway would be graded to depths conducive to growing seagrass on both sides of the berm.
Soil erosion and stormwater runoff have a much greater influence on seagrass growth than the causeways do, environmental scientists say. Runoff sends silt into seagrass beds. Wind and boat wakes stir the silt, clouding up the lagoon and blocking sunlight from reaching the valuable bottom plants. Those problems would remain regardless of causeways.
Concern: The rail would disrupt boating in the lagoon and hiking on the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Tracks would cross the refuge’s Oak Hammock Trail twice, which could mean lengthy delays for hikers as trains almost a mile-long pass.
Large freight trains also might impact the Coast to Coast Bike Trail, planned to stretch from Pinellas County to Brevard.
Counterpoint: The lift bridge would remain in an upright position most of the time, allowing boats to pass through. It would drop only when trains approach. Port officials estimate only about three or four trains per week, running at about 10 mph. Officials will study and try to minimize public access impacts to the refuge.
3. Public safety
Concern: Some fear the increased cargo rail traffic could result in more people being hit by trains and disruption or delay emergency vehicles. Some also have raised fears about commercial cargo passing through NASA property.
Counterpoint: The study will review rail operations and analyze the potential for increased probability of train accidents. It also will propose ways to avoid, minimize or eliminate potential impacts to safety.
4. Wildlife and wetlands
Concern: The rail would cut through prime scrub habitat, harming wildlife biodiversity that taxpayers for decades have paid to protect in perpetuity.
Threatened Florida scrub jays, gopher tortoises, indigo snakes and other wildlife inhabit the scrub and wetlands habitat along Merritt Island.
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge’s 17,000 acres of contiguous scrub habitat supports the second-largest population of scrub jays remaining, second only to the Ocala National Forest.
“The rail will be going through part of that,” said Layne Hamilton, who manages the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
According to a FLORIDA TODAY analysis, the 100-foot-wide rail corridor of the two current proposed alignments would cross over and cover 73 or 90 acres of wetlands, depending on which option is selected. This includes roughly 46 acres across the Banana River for Option A and almost 30 acres of the lagoon for Option B.
But wetland impacts could extend beyond the acres covered by the track and corridor.
Officials say they would align the rail’s final route to minimize habitat impacts and could set aside or restore environmentally sensitive lands elsewhere to mitigate any such impacts.
“Until we really know where the actual alignment is, we won’t know exactly what kind of impacts we’ll have,” Hamilton said.
The rail’s track to KSC would cover some wetlands, which help filter water before it flows to the lagoon. Pipes installed underneath the rail bed and new bridges in some areas of KSC would allow wetlands to flow underneath.
5. Air Quality
Concern: Locomotives burn diesel fuel. Diesel exhaust has been linked with increased rates of heart attacks, asthma attacks and other health effects.
Counterpiont: Newer trains must meet stricter federal diesel standards that began taking effect in 2008. The stricter standards are expected to cut particle pollution from locomotive engines by as much as 90 percent. The standards are based on the application of high-efficiency pollution-prevention technology for newly manufactured engines built in 2015 or later.
“Their emissions are much less than they were 10 years ago,” David Navecky, environmental protection specialist with the Surface Transportation Board, said at last month’s public hearing in Titusville about the rail proposal.
The rail project would lower pollution, overall, he said, because rail is more efficient than moving cargo by truck.
But to Alex Gorichky of Local Lines Guide Service on Merritt Island, the rail would put other commerce at risk.
“As this water goes, our area goes,” he said at another recent hearing about the proposal in Cape Canaveral. “This is our Florida, and we want to keep it that way. It will never stop unless we stop it here.”
Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663,firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @JWayEnviro
COMMENTS DUE DEC. 19:
Interested parties can submit written comments on the draft scope of study, potential alternative routes for the proposed rail line, and other environmental issues and concerns by Friday. After the close of the comment period, the Surface Transportation Board’s Office of Environmental Analysis will issue a final scope of study that would identify the alternative rail line routes to be considered for detailed analysis in an environmental impact statement.
Comments by mail: Scoping comments submitted by mail should be addressed to: Dave Navecky, Surface Transportation Board, 395 E Street SW, Washington, DC 20423-0001, Attention: Environmental Filing, Docket No. FD 35852.
Comments by email: Scoping comments also can be submitted electronically on the board’s website, stb.dot.gov, by clicking on the “E–Filing” link on the home page and then selecting “Environmental Comments.” Log-in accounts are not needed to file environmental comments electronically, and comments may be typed into the text box provided or attached as a file. If you have difficulties with the e-filing process, call 202-245-0350.
Refer to Docket No. FD 35852 in all correspondence, including e-filings, addressed to the board.
For additional information, go to a Surface Transportation Board-sponsored project website at portcanaveralraileis.com