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'It's going to be a total deterrent': Fears for development if horns return, as deadly Brightline quiet zones are reviewed

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CHARLES TRAINOR JR.
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For much of its history, South Florida has struggled to implement public transportation in a region defined by rapid growth and a multitude of expressways and traffic jams.

The opening of the Brightline high-speed rail in 2018 sought to mitigate that, connecting its southernmost station in downtown Miami and its northernmost in West Palm Beach in an hour.

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But four years on, Broward County’s portion of the corridor has become the country’s deadliest railway per mile, prompting a federal review – and possible removal – of a horn-free zone that could soon target Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties as well.

Jeniffer Mitchell, Deputy Director of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the agency’s final decision would come after a 30-day review and a subsequent public comment period – a process which has yet to begin.

“At the end of that process we would make a recommendation, and there’s a few potential outcomes,” she said. “We could approve the county’s plan for all quiet-zone crossing improvements, we could require that additional safety measures be taken in order for the county to retain the quiet zone or we could choose to terminate the quiet zone.”

Quiet zones are granted by the FRA to reduce the impact of a train’s horn in densely populated or urban areas where other safety measures have been implemented.

In lieu of a horn, organizations like the Broward County Metropolitan Planning Organization work with local governments to implement those measures, which include crossing gates, warning lights and cameras where crossings occur at street level.

“The Federal Rail Administration doesn’t usually step into a situation where a quiet zone exists, '' said Gregory Stuart, executive director of the Broward MPO. “In fact, of all the quiet zones, this is probably one of the first times they’ve actually come back in to re-review a quiet zone.”

Read More: Brightline gets $25 million federal grant to improve safety measures after spate of deaths

Sharing the historic Florida East Coast Railway with a freightliner of the same name, Brightline trains travel at a top speed of 79 miles-per-hour and can take up to a quarter of a mile to fully stop.

Despite the safety measures implemented when the quiet zone was granted in 2019, accidents along the corridor have continued. Investigators have yet to find Brightline, its equipment or its operators at fault for any of the 68 deaths that have occurred.

In many cases, both pedestrians and vehicles have made their way around barriers in an attempt to cross the track and beat the train. Another cause of fatalities along the corridor are suicides.

According to Mike Long, director of regional operations and outreach at the Federal Railroad Administration, deaths on Broward County's quiet zone crossing - 12 so far this year, as of July - account for more than a third of all quiet zone fatalities across the nation.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis expressed concern over how removal of the quiet zone may impact development in the region.

“The unintended consequences of having those train horns is that it completely destroys the environment around an area. We’re trying to embrace rail travel throughout South Florida and it’s going to be a total deterrent – all the developers are going to scatter because they don’t want to deal with the impact that the horns will create.”

Last month, a $25 million federal Department of Transportation R.I.S.E grant was announced at Fort Lauderdale’s Brightline station to increase safety measures along the corridor. Developed by Brightline, the plan includes adding 33 miles of fencing along areas of frequent trespassing and additional warning and suicide prevenetion hotline signs.

Matched by $10 million contributions from the company and Florida’s Department of Transportation, all vehicle crossings along the corridor will also see substantial improvements, including plastic poles similar to those dividing express lanes on the interstate.

“You have to look at it in perspective of the overall,” said Stuart.

“The number of folks that have died on our interstate highway system or our roadway network is actually significantly larger. We have to look to get to zero fatalities everywhere, and I actually think we can solve a lot of problems on the rail corridor faster than we’re able to solve the problems on the roadway network.”

The rail is expected to expand service from West Palm Beach to Orlando next year.

Michael is a summer intern at WLRN and a senior at Florida International University studying politics and international relations.