Aug. 05--In stucco-on-wood historic homes, cinder-block ranch styles and soaring condos, more than 12 percent of Palm Beach County's residents live within 500 feet of an old, unpredictable and noisy neighbor -- the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.
Because of federal requirements that seek to limit damage to communities that are disproportionately minority, poor or elderly, All Aboard Florida was forced to study how its plan to add 32 trains a day would affect the communities hugging FEC's steel spine from Boca Raton to West Palm Beach.
The evaluation was completed in June, and corroborated an earlier finding of "no significant impact" if All Aboard Florida takes measures to mitigate the bleating sound of train horns -- something the Coral Gables-based company has committed to doing.
Safety upgrades at crossings through most of Palm Beach County will allow for less obtrusive wayside horns that are mounted at crossings. Crossings north of 30th Street in West Palm Beach will get added measures so trains can silence their horns all together, per Florida Department of Transportation requirements.
"The corridor has existed in the affected environment for more than 100 years, and consequently, communities have generally built up around and along the corridor," notes the report, a 500-page document filed with the Federal Railroad Administration. Demographic details in this story come from the report unless otherwise noted.
The study, conducted by AMEC Environment & Infrastructure in Newberry, Fla., and paid for by All Aboard Florida, is being reviewed by FRA officials to determine whether its findings are acceptable, said administration spokesman Michael Cole.
AMEC referred questions about the study to All Aboard Florida.
Besides the addition of the passenger rail service, freight traffic is expected to increase by 7 percent by 2016. According to AMEC's report, those increases are likely to have a bigger impact on residents in Palm Beach County that those in Broward or Miami-Dade, where FEC tracks run through more commercial or vacant properties.
According to a 2012 environmental assessment submitted to the FRA, Palm Beach County has 10 census tracts with large populations of people -- between 131 and 229 households -- that will be "severely impacted" if the new train service doesn't include noise mitigation.
Broward County has just two and there are none in Miami-Dade County.
"I don't mind the occasional horn toot," said 97-year-old Jim Ponce, who lives in an 88-year-old home one block west of the FEC tracks in the historic Northwood Hills neighborhood of West Palm Beach. "But what is something semi-melodious now could become too much."
Palm Beach County also has 114 rail crossings -- 64 percent of all crossings in the tri-county area -- as well as 40 schools, 17 grocery stores and 89 religious centers within 500 feet of the tracks, the AMEC report says.
Two streets in downtown West Palm Beach will be permanently closed because of the All Aboard Florida station, while one Fort Lauderdale street faces closing and no Miami streets will be closed.
And while 47 percent of Palm Beach County's corridor is zoned for single-family homes, Broward has just 31 percent and Miami-Dade 35 percent.
Lou Soldo lives in a tidy single-family home five houses east of the FEC tracks on Avenida Hermosa in West Palm Beach. Soldo said last week he was vaguely aware of All Aboard Florida's plans, but had few concerns about the growing rail traffic, even though his street is one that closes each time a train approaches.
The wayside horn, less disturbing to surrounding streets, will blow directly down his.
"If it's 32 more horns per day, that may be a pain in the butt," Soldo said, reconsidering his earlier position.
Five miles south of Ponce's home, a 90-year-old house saved from demolition and moved by barge and flatbed to historic Grandview Heights, sits a half block west of the FEC tracks.
Owner Bruce Barber is a supporter of All Aboard Florida -- with caveats. He wants more than the promised wayside horns to mitigate noise, possibly decorative sound barrier walls or quiet zones, and increased communication from All Aboard Florida.
"I'd like to see more reports about the local neighborhoods and maybe putting more money and time towards assisting these neighborhoods that are in the path of the tracks," said Barber, who was unaware of All Aboard Florida's plans when he moved the house in 2012. "We're still going to hear the wayside horns loud and clear."
And that's what many FEC neighbors in Palm Beach County fear.
Rick Rose is an owner of a West Palm Beach bed and breakfast three blocks west of the FEC tracks. The primary complaint from guests is the train horns, he said, and he doesn't believe the stationary horns pledged by All Aboard Florida will reduce the noise for people who live on streets with crossings.
While train-mounted horns direct their 96 to 110 decibel blasts in a more 360-degree fashion, crossing-mounted horns are aimed down the street with a minimum decibel level of 92. The horn must sound 15 seconds before a train arrives and continue while the lead locomotive is moving through the crossing.
"There is no question that those properties will be significantly impacted in a negative way," Rose said.
All Aboard Florida disagrees.
"There are various studies that have shown property values will not decline with the addition of train traffic within an existing corridor, and in fact, there are many studies that show property values actually increase within a certain proximity to train stations," the company said in a statement.
Experts interviewed by The Palm Beach Post said it's true that home values generally increase within a mile of a train station hub -- residences that people are willing to pay more for to make their work travel easier. But the research so far has been based mostly on regional commuter lines where trains shuttle passengers through multiple stops in a condensed area.
It's less likely that All Aboard Florida, with higher ticket prices and stops only in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando, will be used by everyday commuters.
Delray Beach resident Jim Hazelwood owns three homes in the same block about 250 yards east of the FEC tracks. The front doors of all three houses face the tracks with nothing but vacant land between them and the trains.
"I am very concerned we will lose rents and property values," Hazelwood said. "There is a huge amount of property close to the tracks here."
While many municipal leaders are looking for ways to pay for crossing safety updates that will allow trains to silence their horns throughout Palm Beach County, Delray Beach officials have not addressed the issue, said Interim City Manager Terry Stewart.
The city, which has five crossings, is organizing an All Aboard Florida workshop to be held in the near future, Stewart said.
"I've had city commissioners tell me that people want to live near the train stations, that my property values will increase," said Theresa Beermann, who plans to build a home on land she owns within a block of the tracks south of downtown West Palm Beach. "I just can't imagine that's true."
Copyright 2014 - The Palm Beach Post, Fla.