CSX to PSTA: Greenlight Pinellas can’t run on our rail lines!

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At critical junctures in the Greenlight Pinellas plan to run light rail from Clearwater to downtown St. Petersburg, engineers envision a passenger train operating alongside the freight lines of CSX. The only hitch? CSX has repeatedly told the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority this is not feasible.

According to a series of emails obtained by SaintPetersBlog, Bob O’Malley, a vice president at CSX in charge of state government and community affairs, has communicated in writing and met in person with Brad Miller, executive director of PSTA, to convey CSX’s concerns with the Greenlight Pinellas plan. Despite CSX’s formal objections, the Greenlight Pinellas plan still shows as its first option running a light rail line adjacent to CSX’s freight line, while downplaying the likelihood that the path of the light rail line will end up being routed along Missouri Avenue. This routing would involve either a significant disruption to a major thoroughfare in central Pinellas County or the acquisition of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in property along Missouri Avenue, all the while uprooting businesses currently located there.

As detailed on Page 5 of The Greenlight Pinellas Plan, the “Locally Preferred Alternative” route of the light rail line would start/finish in Downtown Clearwater and run north/south to East Bay Drive via a CSX Freight Corridor.

greenlight pinellas - plan1

 The “Locally Preferred Alternative” route of the light rail line would also utilize a swath of the CSX Freight Corridor in St. Petersburg. 

greenlight pinellas - plan2 

However, as CSX’s O’Malley makes clear in February 2012 email to Scott Pringle, the Project Manager for Greenlight Pinellas at Jacobs Engineering, “an electrified light rail system cannot operate on our existing rail infrastructure in Pinellas County.” 

Greenlight Pinellas engineers and planners aren’t suggesting the light rail system run on CSX’s freight lines; they only wish to run the light rail line adjacent to the freight lines. Again, to CSX, this is a non-starter.

O’Malley notes in one email that 50 feet of lateral separation is required between freight rail and light rail tracks; in a later email, he informs Miller, “I do not believe CSX owns sufficient ROW to meet this minimum clearance, so acquisition of adjacent property would be required.”

The Greenlight Pinellas plan does include alternative routes for the light rail line if it cannot run adjacent to CSX’s freight lines. Referred to as “Design Alternatives,” these routes are not as prominent on the collaterals used to promote the transit plan.

The “Design Alternative” for the Clearwater section of Greenlight Pinellas has the light rail line running east/west for approximately half of a mile along Gulf to Bay Boulevard and north/south for approximately three miles along Missouri Avenue, one of the busiest roads in north Pinellas County. 

The “Design Alternative” for the downtown St. Petersburg section of Greenlight Pinellas shows the light rail line running adjacent to I-275 south of 22nd Avenue North.

In the Greenlight Pinellas plan, it does not spell out whether the light rail line would be built on existing roadway or acquired property.

The difficulties of running a passenger rail line adjacent to a freight rail line were spelled out in a series of letters from CSX to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority when HART was engaged in the initiative to bring light rail to Hillsborough County.

“In general, freight rail and light rail are incompatible,” wrote Steve Potter, AVP of Network Planning and Joint Facilities for CSX. Among the reasons freight rail and light rail are incompatible, Potter writes, are:

  • Without a crash barrier with intrusion alarms, light rail tracks must be laterally separated by a minimum of 50 ft from the centerline of the nearest freight track.
  • When a crash barrier with intrustion alarms is present, the face of that barier must have a minimum lateral separation of 25 ft from the center of the nearest freight track to the face of the crash barrier with an intrusion alarm and the LRT must be at least 8 ft beyond the crash barrier.
  • All light rail – freight rail crossings must be grade separated witht he light rail over the freight rail providing at least 25 ft vertical clearance above top-of-rail of the freight track.

Again, as O’Malley expresses in his communications to PSTA, there is not enough room in CSX’s Freight Corridors to accommodate these needs.

The extensive planning done for Greenlight Pinellas does acknowledge the possibility that CSX’s Freight Corridors may not be available for GP’s purposes. On Page 42 of the Alernatives Analysis (AA) Conceptual Engineering Technical Memorandum (CETM), the plan states, “All alternatives were retained due to the unknown feasibility of using the existing CSX rail line.”

In an email to Greenlight Pinellas critic Tom Rask, PSTA executive director Miller writes, “We would like to acquire part or all of their land corridors in 2 locations (downtown Clearwater & downtown St Pete), but never their track or the land under their in-use track.  In some spots we’d love to shift their tracks to the one side of their corridor to allow the 2 LRT tracks to be at least 26 feet away at all times.”

“Obviously this may not be possible or CSX may be unwilling sellers,” writes Miller.

Judging from the correspondence from CSX to PSTA, this would appear to be the case. The Greenlight Pinellas plan should be better updated to reflect these realities, so that voters, especially those in Clearwater and St. Petersburg are aware of the distinct possibility of property being taken via eminent domain.

Here is the email chain between CSX and PSTA: 

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.