Passenger traffic way up at SRQ, but with growth comes growing pains

November 23, 2018 09:19 AM

Updated November 23, 2018 09:19 AM

Hurricane Michael toppled 80 percent of its trees. Now Florida Caverns State Park digs out

Tori Schneider, Tallahassee Democrat
Published 1:40 p.m. ET Nov. 17, 2018

 

The busy season had just finished at Florida Caverns State Park when Hurricane Michael hit.

An estimated 140,000 people visit from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year.

Whether or not those numbers will hold steady in 2019 will depend on how well the park recovers from the damage done by Oct. 10 Category 4 hurricane that ravaged the park and a large swath of the Panhandle into southern Georgia.

Eighty to 90 percent of the trees covering the 1,500-acre Marianna attraction were lost.

“The storm was the likes we’ve never seen before,” said Park Manager Jacob Strickland.  “We have done a very limited assessment on the cave at this point. Of course, most of the trees that were above the cave, a lot of them have come down. There is a possibility that there could be (new entrances into the cave) but that is unknown at this point.”

Nearly every building, a total of more than two dozen, including barbecue pits, restrooms, pavilions and resident park employee housing sustained damage.

Perhaps the most important building, the Visitors Center, was largely spared by the storm and came out on the other side with merely a few broken windows. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression along with others on the property including three residences.

“The historic buildings that the CCC built definitely showcased their strength in their construction because there was very little damage to those buildings,” said Strickland.

The Train That Only Libertarians Can Love

Will Florida’s sleek, for-profit rail project become an advertisement for the limitations of bipartisan compromise?

by Maddy Crowell

Barack Obama had a vision—expressed in a literal, color-coded map he carried with him in 2009—for how high-speed rail would transform America. There would be 150,000 jobs, environmental benefits, less highway and airport congestion, and, most importantly, “a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the twenty-first century.” As part of that vision, in his 2010 State of the Union address he announced that the state of Florida would receive a federal grant, later set at $2.4 billion, to build a high-speed rail project that had been shovel ready since the 1990s: an eighty-five-mile line connecting Tampa and Orlando, offering a super-fast alternative to traffic jams along Interstate 4. The young president showed up a day later in a sweaty gymnasium at the University of Tampa to promote the plan. “There’s no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail and we can’t,” he said to applause. “And that’s what’s about to happen right here in Tampa.”

Except it wasn’t. That November, Republican Rick Scott, a Tea Party darling, was elected Florida’s new governor. It took him one month in office to extinguish Obama’s vision. “Put simply,” Scott wrote in a February 2011 letter to Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, “the proposed high-speed rail line is far too uncertain and offers far too little long-term benefit for me to consider moving forward.”

Ideology was at the core of his decision. For years, mainstream Republicans have rebuked high-speed rail as socialist folly. (They are hardly kinder to Amtrak, a quasi-public, nominally for-profit entity.) Scott was the latest in a long line of Republican governors—including John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin—to reject Obama’s money on the grounds that high-speed rail was too much of a burden on taxpayers.

But a few years ago, a more palatable solution was presented to Florida’s Republicans. The proposed train, called Brightline, wouldn’t quite be “high speed,” which by international standards generally means running on dedicated tracks at speeds over 150 miles per hour, often approaching 200. Brightline trains would run on upgraded tracks laid in the nineteenth century, passing through the centers of many small towns and traversing hundreds of grade crossings, where track and roadway (or track and track) meet. As a result, they would top out at 125 miles per hour. But what really animated Republicans was Brightline’s solution to funding: it would be a for-profit operation funded through private investment. This train wasn’t socialism; it was American free enterprise at work. 

Yet Brightline, which started running between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach this past January and extended services to Miami in May, has been controversial. While Scott has praised the project for being “100 percent private,” the project is under siege from a broad coalition of Floridians—including many Republicans—who complain that a high-speed passenger train will disrupt their tranquil communities, and who object to the generous subsidies handed out to private investors in the form of what are known as private activity bonds, or PABs—tax-exempt bonds created by Congress and authorized by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Florida’s state Democrats, for the most part, have been quietly supportive of Brightline. 

So many other countries have unveiled state-of-the-art high-speed rail systems in recent years (Uzbekistan, anyone?) that it’s become almost a cliché to wonder why America hasn’t been able to build tracks of its own. Yet the question of what to do about the impasse—along with America’s degenerating infrastructure more broadly—remains perilously unanswered. Brightline, with its supposed combination of public benefit and private enterprise, offers itself as a panacea to the partisan gridlock. But can a for-profit transportation project adequately provide what has traditionally been a publicly subsidized service? Or will the sleek new trains become an advertisement for the limitations of bipartisan compromise?

President Obama wasn’t the first Democrat to make sweeping promises about how high-speed rail would transform Florida. In 1982, the wildly popular Democratic Governor Bob Graham returned from a vacation in Japan convinced that bullet trains were the future. He created the Florida High Speed Rail Commission, a nonpartisan group tasked with determining whether the technology was feasible for Florida. They concluded that it was, and by 1996, it looked as though the project would actually happen. The Florida Department of Transportation agreed to commit $70 million per year for thirty years to build a line between Orlando and Tampa. Companies like Amtrak and the makers of France’s TGV started meeting with the committee to bid for the commission. One consortium even proposed a magnetic levitation train that would travel at 300 miles an hour.

“They spent an hour convincing me how they were the best engineers,” said C. C. Dockery, a wealthy, civic-minded businessman who served on the committee, recalling one such meeting. “Finally, I had a chance to cut in and say, ‘If you think this is an engineering job, you’re definitely wrong. This is a political job.’”

By that time, debates over high-speed rail were percolating nationwide. Conservatives objected that it would be an expensive boondoggle leading to bigger government. If countries like Japan and France were surpassing the U.S. in train technology, it was just a sign of their socialist inefficiency. Besides, they argued, we have cars.

Democrats, by contrast, were drawn to the broad social benefits of high-speed rail: the millions of construction jobs they believed it could create, the broader economic development it could stimulate, and, perhaps idealistically, the connections it might encourage between disparate communities. In 1992, then candidate Bill Clinton proposed creating “a high-speed rail network between our nation’s major cities.” Once in office, he wound up prioritizing deficit reduction over his campaign promises for infrastructure investment, but he still managed to put in place a plan to create federal-state partnerships devoted to alternative means of transportation. Florida was first in line to receive the benefits. 

But, in 1999, newly elected Governor Jeb Bush killed a $6.3 billion project to build a bullet train linking Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. Billions of public dollars were at stake, he said; who knew whether tourists and auto-loving Floridians would even use it. (Florida would have put up $2 billion, with the rest coming from federal loans and private investment.)

A group of private citizens fought back, led by Dockery. In 2000, following a campaign to which Dockery contributed $3 million of his own money, Florida voted in favor of making high-speed rail a state constitutional mandate. It seemed like Dockery had finally won: construction for a train from Tampa to Orlando was to begin in 2003. But Bush—who later boasted that his nickname was “Veto” Corleone—swooped in to lead an effort to repeal the amendment in 2004. “This little choo-choo could cost us a lot of money,” Bush argued on his way to winning the repeal vote. It seemed clear by that point that Florida’s Republicans would not budge: high-speed rail was all but out of commission. 

And then Brightline came along. 

When I flew into Fort Lauderdale in July, I had to rent a car. Florida’s southeast corridor is designed for the automobile, with disjointed trenches of soggy swampland and gated communities joined by an epic sprawl of asphalt and traffic. With the exception of Miami, the cities that run along the southeast coast feel more like a disparate string of small neighborhoods, linked by roads with names like Green River Parkway and South Military Trail that ultimately feed into larger highways like Interstate 95.

The Brightline station, built on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale’s sleepy downtown, stood in stark contrast to its surroundings—a fiercely lit, modern white-winged building spitting out a pair of railway tracks that divide the city. To the east was a mix of fast-rising real estate developments and gentrifying older neighborhoods; to the west, low-income housing. Surrounding the station, on all sides, were streets and highways. Every day, sixteen trains run in each direction between West Palm Beach and Miami, offering a high-end, hospitable alternative to I-95, which runs parallel to the train. 

“Nifty,” a man disembarking Brightline said as I stepped past him onto a fluorescently painted train that had slid into the station exactly on time. “Very nifty.”

It was a Wednesday night in the middle of summer, and nearly every other row of seats was empty. The interior glowed in an opalescent sheen, smelling of a fresh grapefruit musk (a scent that Brightline is turning into candles to sell). The plush leather seats reclined to face screens displaying color-coded maps and declaring, “We’re proud to be American-made.” Inscribed on every headrest, in elegant cursive, was the word “Brightline.”

We all but glided up the coast, passing backyard barbecues, empty lots, and low-income communities where, as one man later put it to me by way of explaining the poverty, “People bike.” It was a sharp contrast to the scene inside the train, which seemed built to serve mostly businesspeople and tourists. Smiling stewardesses in matching violet uniforms offered riders in the “Select” class unlimited free beverages. One stewardess, whose hospitality recalled the long-lost days of Pan Am, explained to a middle-aged blond woman who was sipping a vodka with lime that she could even blow-dry her hair on Brightline on her way to work. “It pays to relax!” she said with a laugh, continuing down the aisle.

“I’ll take a Stella Artois,” said a young man playing Sim-City on his computer. He paused, looking up. “Wait—is it cold?”

The stewardess nodded.

“I mean, is it Florida cold?”

It was indeed. This, Brightline seemed to be saying, was no Amtrak ride. 

To its boosters, Brightline is a testament to what free enterprise can accomplish—running on privately owned tracks that simultaneously run fleets of money-making freight trains. But the reality is that hauling people has been a money loser since the 1960s, and Brightline wouldn’t exist without some form of government backing.  

The project was the brainchild of Wes Edens, the cofounder of Fortress, one of Wall Street’s most powerful private equity firms, which bought Florida East Coast Industries for $3.5 billion in 2007. Eight years later, the company came up with a plan to make passenger trains profitable again. The trick was to get approval from the Florida government and the U.S. Department of Transportation to allow Brightline to float more than $1.7 billion in private activity bonds. 

PABs, originally designed to attract investment to private projects with public benefits (like, say, a new hospital), are appealing to investors because the interest they pay is exempt from federal income taxes. For Brightline, they provided a way to finance private infrastructure using public tax subsidies. Although Brightline’s holding company is responsible for paying back the debt created by these bonds, the tax exemption is a pure public expenditure.

In 2000, Florida voted in favor of making high-speed rail a state constitutional mandate. But Governor Jeb Bush swooped in to lead an effort to repeal the amendment in 2004. “This little choo-choo could cost us a lot of money,” he argued.

To survive on PAB funding, Brightline needs to find a way to churn a profit. As Brightline’s president Patrick Goddard explained to me, “Our goal is to provide mobility. And yes, we want to make money while doing so.” In turn, it is pricey. Current rates, which are expected to rise significantly, range from $15 to $30 to ride from Miami to Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach. Like airline flights or ride shares, prices fluctuate based on demand. (I paid $20 to ride for thirty minutes between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in the off-season.)

If all goes right, Brightline will create so much economic development in the communities it serves that it will more than make up for the cost of its tax subsidies. The taxpayers will in effect get a free passenger rail service. But if that sounds too good to be true, maybe it is. 

Aprivate, for-profit train seemed to be just the banner Florida’s corporate Republicans needed to pass high-speed rail, even if it was only made possible through the back-end subsidy of tax exemptions. “We changed the conversation,” Dennis Grady, the president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, told me when I met him at his office, a flat building on the edge of the water just ten minutes from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Grady, who has been running the Chamber for thirty-three years and likes to refer to the business community as “my people,” has been a leading advocate of Brightline, which is a Chamber member. “We removed the criticism of public dollars, and put in private dollars.”

The business community’s enthusiasm has been key to Brightline’s success. More surprising, though, has been the support of libertarians—erstwhile high-speed rail skeptics who became cheerleaders for Brightline. One of these supporters is Bob Poole, founder of the libertarian Reason Foundation and a member of Scott’s transition team in 2010. The Reason Foundation was instrumental in persuading the governor to reject Obama’s proposed project in 2011. When Scott announced that he was killing the project, he cited a Reason Foundation report as the basis for his decision. 

Private activity bonds are appealing to investors because the interest they pay is exempt from federal income taxes. For Brightline, they provided a way to finance private infrastructure using public tax subsidies.

I met Poole at his house, a late-1960s tract house fifteen minutes outside of Fort Lauderdale. The walls were lined with an eclectic book collection, with public policy tomes resting next to Ayn Rand fiction and Hippie Food. Poole told me that Obama’s high-speed rail plan was “just loony tunes.” High-speed rail made sense in Europe, or Japan, where cities were closer together and extensive rail systems already existed, he explained. But in America, preexisting freight tracks have been severely downsized, and trying to revive them doesn’t make sense. Brightline, however, was a different story. “The fact that this is privately funded, and no taxpayer money is at risk, makes this a no-brainer to support.”

Yet even if Brightline wins the praise of self-described market conservatives and Chamber of Commerce types, it’s having a harder time in some other Republican quarters. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has become an outspoken critic. A few months after Brightline began operations, Rubio wrote a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao questioning the legitimacy of its funding. He argued that the project doesn’t meet the standards outlined by the Department of Transportation, which provide that “high-speed rail” must run at a base speed of 150 miles per hour to qualify for funding. Other state Republicans chimed in with letters to Chao.

An unlikely team of allies—nine Democratic and Republican representatives—fired back, assuring Chao that they shared her “vision of identifying innovative approaches to meet our nation’s transportation challenges.” The group argued that Brightline was the “perfect example” of how private activity bonds should be spent, and that it would decongest Florida’s growing population by providing a new transportation alternative. They accused their opponents of “resisting change.”

Meanwhile, opposition is strong at the local level, including among the many Republican retirees who live along Brightline’s right-of-way. A month after the train began operating, a group calling itself Citizens Against Rail Expansion (CARE) filed a lawsuit complaining of crony capitalism. CARE’s suit challenges the legality of Brightline’s PABs while also raising environmental and safety concerns (in six months, for instance, Brightline trains ran over and killed nine people, though more than half may have been cases of suicide). The lawsuit is currently awaiting a court date. 

Governor Scott—who is running for Senate this fall—has not responded directly to any of the complaints, beyond repeatedly stressing that Brightline poses no risk to taxpayers. He may be forced to speak more on the topic soon. In August, the Miami Herald reported that Scott and his wife had invested at least $3 million in Fortress, the investment group that owns Brightline, and have earned more than $150,000 in profits from their investment. When I contacted Scott’s office, his spokesperson, Lauren Schenone, said that Scott’s investment was part of a fund “managed by an independent financial professional who decides what assets are bought, sold or changed,” and that Scott, a multimillionaire, has no control over it. “The Governor does not discuss the First Lady’s investments with her or with her financial advisors,” Schenone added.

In August, Brightline got the green light from the Florida Development Finance Corporation to act as the conduit issuer for almost $1.8 billion in PABs, enabling the company to go forward with what they are calling “Phase II”: trains from Miami to the Orlando airport. Construction has begun, with the upgraded track cutting through one of Florida’s most densely populated arteries—a predominantly Republican corridor where many residents are adamantly opposed to seeing fast trains running through their backyard. Ironically, it’s a “backyard” that likely wouldn’t exist if the railway hadn’t been built through it 124 years ago.

“We don’t want this train coming through our town—bottom line,” Brent Hanlon, one of four founding members of CARE, explained to me in his office in an exclusive country club in Hobe Sound. Hanlon, who has sandy blond hair, sun-spotted skin, and speaks with a boyish eagerness, had never been politically active until 2014, when he heard about Brightline. He immediately reached out to the surrounding forty towns to raise awareness about the train, and formed CARE. “We’re a very small town with a small-town feel, and we just think that having a train blow through our community would take away the charm of our downtown. When you see Confusion Corner, you’ll understand why.”

Hobe Sound, in Martin County, is part of a cluster of small communities that make up the “Treasure Coast,” a sprawling beach with silvery blue water where sea turtles nest and “downtown” is a single street with a theater, a café, a barber shop, and a restaurant. Inland, wild swampland wraps tightly around spruced-up golf courses, a parody of the eternal combat between chaos and order. 

I followed Hanlon by car to Confusion Corner, which turned out to be the local nickname for a congested roundabout in the middle of the small town of Stuart. Bisecting one edge of the clogged circle are the railway tracks Brightline proposes to use. As we stood there, a freight train passed by, and Hanlon pointed to every “confused” car that had to sit a little longer in traffic. I didn’t completely understand the hype. Trains had been running up and down the tracks for as long as Martin County had existed. While Brightline would add to that traffic, it didn’t seem like something Floridians—who appear to be culturally habituated to congestion—hadn’t seen before. 

“Is there anything Brightline could do to change your mind?” I asked Hanlon as we watched the freight chug past. 

“Yeah,” he said quickly. “They could, uh, not run.”

CARE has been repeatedly accused of being a classic case of NIMBYism. At a congressional hearing last April, Brightline’s president, Patrick Goddard, accused the group of being “a minority of narrow-minded residents . . . who are willing to support passenger rail everywhere, it seems, except in their own backyard.” When I spoke with Goddard on the phone more recently, he said he wished he’d handled the situation differently. “We’re married now,” he said, referring to the fact that Brightline is beginning to build through the Treasure Coast en route to Orlando. “We’re going to have to find a way to get along.” 

Naturally, Brightline opponents see the NIMBY label as a way of trivializing their objections. “We have really legitimate reasons for being concerned about safety, and to say that we’re just anti-progress is very shortsighted,” said Erin Grall, the state representative for Vero Beach, and a Republican. “The reality of these coastal communities is that they have been built up by a railway, but not one running at 110 miles per hour through our communities.” She argued that Brightline hadn’t put the proper safety features in place: the train would pass through 100 grade crossings, and the burden of maintaining them, according to Grall, would fall on local taxpayers. “This state’s been talking about high-speed rail for a really long time,” she said. “The conversation does change a little if it’s privately funded, but safety is still an issue and there isn’t really an entity on the state level that has stepped up to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to make sure our citizens will be safe.’”

CARE casts itself as the voice of the community—a bipartisan advocate for what it claims are the roughly ten million people who live in areas that could be affected by rail expansion. At the same time, CARE has powerful supporting players of its own. In the group’s short life-span, it has raised $2 million from private “crowdsourcing” (the community is mostly wealthy retirees). It is backed by the former CEO of American Airlines and employs a global PR firm and a legal team consisting of two county attorneys and two outside counsels.

Brightline is continuing to expand. In September, the company announced that it would be starting a high-speed passenger service connecting Southern California with Las Vegas. But it’s not clear how successful the Florida operation has been. When I spoke with Goddard, he said Brightline’s first-quarter numbers were “higher than expected.” The company generated $663,000 in ticket revenue, and carried close to 75,000 passengers, from January to March. But according to Brightline’s unaudited quarterly report, the company lost roughly $28 million in the same period. A Brightline spokeswoman, however, said those numbers only reflected ridership for Brightline’s introductory service, and added that ridership and revenue increased 35 percent from January to March. The project’s fate may depend on whether it can sell the more than $1.1 billion in remaining PABs by the end of January (an extension granted by the Department of Transportation in May). If Brightline fails, private investors will lose their money, with no responsibility on the government itself. But what may be lost, in that case, is the opportunity to have applied the PABs to a project that could have succeeded.

The larger question raised by Brightline is whether its mixture of private ownership and public subsidies, which the Trump administration proposed in its infrastructure bill in February, makes either political or economic sense. “Almost invariably, the issue is that when private capital is at risk, the arrangement is structured so that private returns are prioritized,” said Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “Either way, the public sector always bears the lion’s share of risk for the entire project.” 

“We don’t want this train coming through our town—bottom line,” said Brent Hanlon, a founding member of Citizens Against Rail Expansion. “Is there anything Brightline could do to change your mind?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said quickly. “They could, uh, not run.”

In a way, the combination of private financing for public railways is nothing new. From the beginning, rail infrastructure in the U.S. was privately owned, but largely financed through considerable grants of public land. Railroads, in turn, used a small part of the land for their rights-of-way, selling the rest at an enormous profit. The very track on which Brightline runs exists because back in the 1880s Florida gave Henry Flagler, one of John D. Rockefeller’s close friends, a grant of more than two million acres of land in return for his building the Florida East Coast Railway. 

This model has led to problems and contradictions over the years. Even before the coming of autos and planes, most passenger trains historically lost money, especially ones serving small towns on lightly traveled branch lines. The government had to force railroads to run those unprofitable trains, often pointing to the generous land grants and other subsidies the railroads received. But in the mid-twentieth century, a variety of forces made this harder to sustain. (Depending who you ask, it was Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate system, a cultural shift toward driving, the railroad unions, or all of the above.) The decline of passenger rail was slow, until suddenly, it happened all at once: October, 30, 1970, the day the government passed the Rail Passenger Service Act “to revitalize rail transportation service in the expectation that the rendering of such service along certain corridors can be made a profitable commercial undertaking.” Today, we know that act as “Amtrak.”

That system hasn’t worked out so well either. Outside of the corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., and a few other routes, Amtrak trains run on tracks owned by private railroads. These railroads charge Amtrak rent for using their rails and often for the cost of maintaining their infrastructure, then routinely delay Amtrak trains for hours by making them cede priority to freight trains. Republicans in Congress keep insisting that Amtrak must nonetheless make a profit on each train, even if it means cutting service standards to the bone. Recently, under pressure to show a profit, Amtrak has cut dining car service on two of its long-distance trains and is rapidly cutting back the number of manned stations across the country. 

Maybe a model like Brightline’s is the best America can do. But it doesn’t solve the basic contradiction between expecting trains, or any other form of transportation, to turn a profit on every run while also expecting the system to serve the public’s broad needs for service.

Those who have supported and advocated for Brightline—from Rick Scott to the Chamber of Commerce to the company itself—embrace an ethos of efficiency, but it is an efficiency that, as so often happens when the state looks for private solutions to public problems, tends to achieve its effect by separating the few from the many. As the Chamber’s Dennis Grady told me, “My people want to get from A to B, and they aren’t anxious to stop a lot. That’s why Brightline is successful.”

Maybe, if it is necessary to get conservative buy-in for improved passenger rail service, a model like Brightline’s is the best America can do. But it doesn’t solve the basic contradiction between expecting trains, or any other form of transportation, to turn a profit on every run while also expecting the system to serve the public’s broad needs for service. “The paradox of public transport, quite simply, is that the better it does its job, the less ‘efficient’ it may be,” wrote the historian Tony Judt, a social democrat and a lifelong devotee of railways. “[W]hat of rail links to and from places where people take the train only occasionally? No single person is going to set aside sufficient funds to pay the economic cost of supporting such a service for the infrequent occasions when she uses it. Only the collectivity—the state, the government, the local authorities—can do this.” 

When I left Florida to return home to New York, I decided to take Amtrak. The ride from Tampa took twenty-five hours, traveling along tracks, congested with freight trains, that are owned by the CSX corporation—or, more exactly, by the hedge funds and other financial institutions that own CSX. The station in Tampa was true to Amtrak’s reputation—a decrepit and tired-looking gray. Water dripped on our heads as we waited for a man with a whistle to allow us to board. But every seat was full. Next to me, an elderly woman was traveling to visit her son, somewhere in Virginia. She couldn’t drive and depended on Amtrak to see her family. She asked what had brought me to Florida, and I explained that I was writing about Brightline, the new high-speed rail. “What is high-speed rail?” she asked, yawning.

For all its built-in handicaps and acute underfunding, Amtrak remains an essential public service—and a social good. As an eerie midnight blue set in, and everyone fell asleep, the train rocked forward, stopping deep into the night in the tiny hamlets of the south—the Villages, Waldo, Ocala, Wildwood—to carry passengers who look very different from those riding Brightline to the cities of the Mid-Atlantic. I woke up when the sky turned white and we were passing through someone’s backyard in rural South Carolina, a thick fog settling in over tangles of overgrown mossy fields. Only twelve hours had passed; thirteen, give or take a few, to go.  

Maddy Crowell

Maddy Crowell is a freelance journalist based in New York.

Welcome to water world!

Updated

 

Welcome to water world!
The sunset from South Pointe Park in Miami Beach.

Head for the coast, and on a good weekend, thousands of people are at the shore, enjoying the sun, water and sugar-white sands.

Beaches are the original Florida — the lure that drew Northerners to a swampy peninsula decades before Walt Disney’s company decided to make the Sunshine State home.

Today, these original tourist attractions generate billions of dollars for the state economy and support nearly 400,000 jobs. Their salt-air allure is part of the foundation of modern Florida.

“If the beaches weren’t here, Disney would have thought twice about locating (its theme parks) in Florida,” said Kevin Murphy, professor and chair of the Hospitality Services Department at Rosen College of Hospitality Management at University of Central Florida.

“Our sun, sea and sand is the primary reason why people come here.”

Modern threats from toxic algae, erosion, rising sea levels and oil spills have failed to dim the public’s love of these natural wonders. If the weather’s good on a holiday like Labor Day, the sun-loving crowds prove it again and again.

But the numbers prove it, too.

The United States Lifesaving Association, which compiles data from public safety agencies on ocean rescues, estimates that more than 85.7 million people visited Florida beaches in 2017. That’s the highest attendance the organization recorded in the last 10 years.

It also represents more than a quarter of the more than 385 million people nationwide who visited beaches last year, the group said.

At least 43 of Florida’s state parks have beaches. Combined, they welcomed 14 million to 17 million visitors during each of the last five years, according to data from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the Florida Park Service.

That’s higher than the number of people who visited any one of Florida’s theme parks in 2017, except for Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

Florida’s most popular state park with a beach is Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin, near Clearwater. It drew more than 1.5 million visitors in each of the last two years, as many visitors as Universal Orlando’s newest theme park Volcano Bay in its first year of business.

And that’s just part of the story.

The more you look, the more it becomes clear that Florida is the nation’s undisputed beach king.

How Florida leads in beaches

Florida has a geographic advantage that favors its high beach attendance.

It has about 1,350 miles of coastline, more than any other state in the continental U.S, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Although the Sunshine State doesn’t come close to matching Alaska’s 6,640-mile coastline, it has at least 825 miles of coastline with beaches, according to the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association.

“Florida uniquely has beaches on two different U.S. coastlines, the Atlantic and the Gulf. This means different wave and water patterns, temperatures and culture,” said Derek Brockbank, executive director of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association. “Florida also has beaches with different sand composition, ranging from sugary-white, to filled with tropical shells, to golden-hued.”

This diversity in beach landscapes offers different experiences that attract not only tourists, but also Villagers and other Florida residents.

“Our people love to swim,” said Sharon Jones, the Village of Hemingway resident who leads beach trips with The Villages Barefoot Beachcombers, one of at least five beach clubs in the community. “They’re not the kind of people that sit in a chair all day.”

Beyond the abundant coastline and three distinct beach regions to explore, Florida beaches have other significant advantages.

One selling point stands apart in the minds of many tourists planning their beach getaways: a mild climate for most of the year.

So when blizzards cover Nassau County, New York, with piles of snow, visitors can head south to bask in the sun in places like Amelia Island in Nassau County, Florida.

“If you look at some of the great tourist destinations in the world like New York and Paris, they’re not necessarily surrounded by beaches,” said Murphy, of UCF. “But when you look at millions of people coming to Central Florida, which encompasses two coasts, they often plan that visit around the beaches like Daytona Beach and Clearwater. To attract people to the coastal communities is paramount.”

Leading by acclaim

Florida doesn’t thrive as a beach tourism hotspot only by having beaches open all year.

It also has some of the best beaches in the nation, as ranked by several authoritative travel sources.

Florida beaches featured prominently on TripAdvisor’s annual list of the best beaches in the United States, including six in the top 10: Clearwater Beach at No. 1, Siesta Beach in Sarasota at No. 2, South Beach in Miami at No. 4, Fort Lauderdale Beach at No. 6, St. Pete Beach at No. 7 and Hollywood Beach at No. 8.

Those destinations also are favorites on the annual top 10 lists of Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a coastal ecologist at Florida International University. Although he’s one of the world’s top researchers on sea level rise and rip currents, Leatherman is perhaps best known by his nickname, “Dr. Beach.”

This year, he ranked Grayton Beach State Park in Santa Rosa Beach at No. 3 on his list, and Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin at No. 7. In 2017, Siesta Beach — a frequent entrant on his annual lists — was No. 1.

Attendance to Siesta Beach that year likely received a boost from press coverage of its ranking on the Dr. Beach list that received more than 600 million audience impressions, he said, citing tourism officials in Sarasota.

Other Florida beaches that won his acclaim in prior years include Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys, St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach, St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Port St. Joe, and Fort DeSoto Park in St. Petersburg.

“Florida has clean beaches, clean water, clean sand and good access,” Leatherman said in an interview. “And (Florida beaches) are well-managed.”

To compile his lists, he grades beaches using a set of 50 criteria that includes the color and softness of sand, whether wildlife is present, and whether the beach has scenic vistas or is close to urban areas.

The most important qualities Leatherman looks for in a beach are the cleanliness of the water, public safety, and how well the beach is managed.

“If you don’t have clean water, you don’t have anything,” he said. “The Department of Health checks our water, and it’s excellent. There’s places where it’s not very good, but overall, our water quality is very good in Florida.”

Why beaches matter to Florida’s economy

Depending on where you go, the cost of a beach visit in Florida ranges from free to inexpensive.

Yet, they play a major role in Florida’s economy.

Tourism and recreation in the state’s coastal counties — not limited to, but including beaches — contributed more than $16 billion to Florida’s gross domestic product in 2011, 2012, and 2015, according to the most recent research available from the National Ocean Economics Program, which monitors the ocean economies of the U.S.

Florida and California, a state with $22 billion in GDP and more than 418,000 jobs tied to coastal tourism, together comprise one-third of the nation’s total employment and GDP tied to coastal tourism.

“The reason we don’t have state income taxes (in Florida) is because of the people coming to the beaches,” said Luke Cunningham, a charter boat captain in Clearwater. “It’s a critical part of our economy, that’s for sure.”

It’s certainly critical to Cunningham and many other people, since coastal tourism and recreation supported more than 397,000 jobs in 2015, according to the National Ocean Economics Program.

In its latest economic study on Florida beaches, also from 2015, the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research found beaches generate $5.40 for every dollar the state invests on beach management and restoration.

The study reviewed tourist spending related to beach travel compared with state leaders’ beach management and restoration investments during the 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13 fiscal years.

During that time, state leaders spent about $44 million in taxpayer dollars in beach management projects that improved and enhanced the quality of Florida beaches.

That work contributed to more than $764 million in beach spending from domestic and international visitors, the report showed.

Many out-of-state visitors identify Florida with beaches more than they do theme parks.

In fact, the state Economic and Demographic Research study found that 25.5 percent of visitors to Florida called beaches the most attractive feature of the state’s brand. Theme parks trailed slightly at 24.3 percent.

“It may be noted that, while beaches are the most attractive feature to visitors, they generally do not directly generate revenue,” the report stated. “Instead, they facilitate an array of expenditures that collectively comprise the cost of the tourism experience.”

The beach tends to be such a lucrative destination, tourists will pay big bucks to stay close to it.

About 63 percent of hotel and motel business in Florida comes from coastal areas, according to a recent economic impact analysis for Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism marketer.

STR, a company that tracks market data, found that visitors to Monroe, Collier, Nassau, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Walton counties this year paid an average of about or more than $200 per night for lodging.

Other statewide indicators highlight the significance of beach tourism to Florida.

Of the eight Florida counties that state leaders consider high-impact tourism areas — places where bed taxes raise at least $30 million a year — six of them are counties where beaches are a primary attraction: Duval, Volusia, Pinellas, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.

The other two — Orange and Osceola — have no coastline, but plenty of theme parks to make up for it.

“When we’re reaching out to visitors outside the area, we always lead with the beach,” said Kate Holcomb, spokeswoman for the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau in Volusia County. “We definitely know our iconic beach is our main asset.”

Wide appeal, lots of activities

Saying you’re going to the beach offers only a broad description of how to spend the day.

A trip offers many possibilities, as simple or as elaborate as a visitor wants to make it.

Families with young children, teenagers and young adults, and senior citizens alike pack the shores of Clearwater Beach on an average weekend, their paths meandering around colored umbrellas, chairs and blankets.

If the kids aren’t in the water, they study the sands with toy pails and shovels in tow as they scout out spots to build a perfect sand castle.

Some adults, inspired by the childhood pastime, enjoy sand sculpting — an art that involves building more elaborate objects using the sand, not limited to, but including castles.

Depending on the beach, people also may find anglers casting rods and reels from fishing piers, players lofting volleyballs across an oceanfront net, standup paddle boarders gliding along the ocean, or parasailers soaring above the surf.

Add in surfers, snorkelers and scuba divers, and the beach becomes a moving spectacle of outdoor activity.

Grayton Beach, halfway between Destin and Panama City in Florida’s Panhandle, is where people can view the Underwater Museum of Art, America’s first underwater museum. It’s a sculpture garden accessible only by scuba diving.

Despite debuting only three months ago, Time Magazine recently named the underwater museum one of its top 100 places in the world to visit. Only one other Florida landmark made the list, Pandora — The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Caladesi Island, a Dr. Beach favorite near Clearwater, attracts many paddleboaters because a canoe or kayak is the only other way besides a ferry to reach the beach.

Among those paddlers last year was a group of 12 members of The Villages Canoe and Kayak Club. Jim Zoschenko, who led that trip and now serves as the club’s vice president, said the paddle trail across Hurricane Pass from Honeymoon Island leads through tunnels of mangroves.

The Village of Pennecamp resident said the club organizes at least one coastal paddle every year. He’s planning a return visit to Caladesi Island for the club next spring.

More members enjoyed the paddle to the beach than the beach itself, Zoschenko said.

“It was interesting that on that trip very few of our club members got in the water,” he said, “which was bizarre since the conditions were idyllic.”

Michael Salerno is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.

A Toxic Tide Is Killing Florida Wildlife

Dead fish, most likely killed by a toxic algal bloom, in Florida in 2016. The current outbreak has been going strong for about nine months. Credit Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG, via Getty Images
By Tryggvi Adalbjornsson and Melissa Gomez,

 

Florida has an algae problem, and it’s big. This year, an overgrowth in the waters off the state’s southwestern coast is killing wildlife and making some beaches noxious.

The toxic algal bloom, known as a red tide, is not unusual. They appear off the state’s coast almost every year. But this one, still going strong after roughly nine months, is the longest since 2006, when blooms that originated in 2004 finally abated after 17 months.

The blooms can poison marine animals like sea turtles and manatees, while waves and ocean spray can carry toxins into the air and cause respiratory problems in people.

They can also hit the local tourism industry hard.

“We’re all being really devastated,” said Rachel Wells, 24, who manages an ecotourism business in Englewood, Fla. that runs catamaran tours in the Gulf of Mexico. “Business is just being hurt because we can’t conscientiously suggest for our guests to come out.”

Her company has not done a tour in two weeks, she said, and has temporarily laid off six employees until business picks up again.As for the wildlife, almost 300 sea turtles have been found dead since January in four counties south of Tampa that have been affected by the bloom, far more than the usual number.

Although some of the turtles may have been tangled up in fishing lines, hit by boats or died from diseases unrelated to the algae blooms, Allen Foley, a wildlife biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said he believed that a majority of the turtle deaths were attributable to the red tide.

“It’s a very safe bet,” he said.

Beaches have been covered in dead fish, too, causing a foul smell on top of the respiratory problems that have hit some people, Ms. Wells said.

An algal bloom off Coquina Beach, Fla. in 2006.  Credit Paul Lamison/Tampa Tribune-News Channel 8, via Associated Press

“It is nasty here,” wrote Beth Camisa of Englewood, Fla., in a Facebook group dedicated to sharing information about the red tide. “Haven’t been to the beach in weeks.”

The blooms generally appear in late summer or early fall and tend to die off sometime before the following summer. In a normal year, factors like winds, currents and competition from other types of algae cause them to dissipate. This time, though, the bloom hasn’t gone away.

Toxic freshwater algal blooms, originating inland at Lake Okeechobee, have also caused concern in southern Florida this summer. Spread by controlled water releases from the lake, the blooms prompted Governor Rick Scott of Florida to issue an executive order this month to help battle the algae.

These blue-green algae, which appear in the lake almost every year, are promoted by stagnant water, high temperatures and nutrients from sources like fertilizers, said Christopher J. Gobler, professor of marine science at Stony Brook University.

“That lake is heavily impacted by citrus agriculture,” he said.

Climate change is expected to intensify the freshwater algal blooms, according to Timothy Davis, associate professor of biology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

“They really flourish in warm waters,” he said. Also, increased rainfall can bring more nutrients into lakes. “We’re expecting to see larger blooms that last longer and could potentially be more toxic.”

The extent to which climate change is affecting the blooms at sea is unclear. For the red tides off Southwest Florida, researchers “don’t have enough data to really answer the question,” said Richard P. Stumpf, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who studies harmful algae. “It’s a hard problem.”

Sea level rise threatens to eat away the Everglades | Opinion

By Steve Davis
July 2, 2018

 

For those of us living along the lower east coast of Florida, the Everglades is a backyard wilderness, the source of our drinking water and an important hurricane buffer. It is also a flat, low-lying wetland with an imperceptible slope, making it quite vulnerable to sea-level rise.

Once a 50-mile-wide “River of Grass” extending from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, the Everglades is now divided by canals and levees into units we know as Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and the Water Conservation Areas.

Now half its original size, the remaining Everglades ecosystem still encompasses more than 2.5 million acres and consists of a variety of habitats that are adapted to extremely low nutrient levels and a range of flooding conditions by either freshwater or saltwater. Scientists have been investigating what is likely to happen to the Everglades when those flooding patterns are altered by rapid rates of sea-level rise.

Many people assume that as sea level rises, mangroves will gradually migrate landward, replacing freshwater sawgrass near the coast. This landward migration of mangroves and other coastal habitats is well documented, and there is strong evidence that this process has been exacerbated further by water management activities, which reduce freshwater flow from the Everglades to the coast.

It doesn’t take a scientist to see the effects. Anyone who drives to Flamingo or Key Largo can observe how far the mangroves have advanced inland over the last few decades.

Given that mangroves provide valuable coastal wetland habitat, trading sawgrass for mangroves may not be such a bad thing, right? Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

The interaction of water, salinity and plants can dramatically affect the integrity and elevation of the soil that supports these habitats.

In freshwater sawgrass marshes and salty mangroves of the Everglades, organic soils (called peat soils) develop under persistent flooding. Peat soils are comprised of plant matter that accumulates faster than it decomposes, forming a blanket of sorts on top of South Florida’s porous limestone bedrock.

In the deepest freshwater marshes, peat soils average 2 to 3 feet in thickness. In Everglades mangroves, peat soil thickness can exceed 10 feet.

When we deprive marshes of freshwater, peat soils break down, resulting in soil loss. In fact, it has been estimated that some marshes in the park have lost as much as 3 feet of soil elevation in the era of water management.

A more complicated and destructive outcome results when freshwater marshes, which are already receiving less freshwater, are increasingly exposed to saltwater before mangroves become established. An example is Cape Sable, the landmass at the southwestern-most tip of Florida.

In the 1920s, canals were dug into Cape Sable to drain the freshwater marshes but instead facilitated saltwater intrusion. By the time aerial photography became widely available in the 1930s and 40s, much of this freshwater marsh had disappeared, converting to open water rather than a mangrove forest.

Research by Dr. Hal Wanless of the University of Miami suggested that saltwater accelerated the breakdown and collapse of these freshwater marshes on Cape Sable. His work inspired scientists from Florida International University led by Dr. Tiffany Troxler, the Everglades Foundation, Everglades National Park, and the South Florida Water Management District to develop experiments focused on understanding how and why peat soil collapses.

This research, which is supported by Florida Sea Grant and the National Science Foundation, will improve how we assess wetland vulnerability to sea-level rise and perhaps identify better water or habitat management options.

Through this work and other science, we are learning that a “perfect storm” of sea-level rise, low freshwater flow (because of water management) and saltwater intrusion can cause peat soil to disappear faster than it can accumulate – transforming an affected area to open water, not to mangrove forest.

In the Everglades, collapsed areas appear as large puddles in the landscape surrounded by vegetation. Over time, collapsed areas of marsh coalesce into larger areas, releasing nutrients once sequestered in the peat soil into the environment where they wreak havoc in the Everglades and coastal waters such as Florida Bay or Biscayne Bay.

Peat soil is to the Everglades as sediments and coastal marshes are to the Louisiana Delta, and loss of peat soil can result in the loss of land.

When such drastic ecological changes occur so rapidly, it is difficult to predict what chain of events will follow. However, we know that we are accelerating peat collapse and shaping the future coastline of the Everglades under the current system of water management.

Until we restore the flow of freshwater to Everglades National Park, we are short-circuiting the natural transition to mangroves and possibly increasing South Florida’s future coastal vulnerability.

Dr. Steve Davis is the Senior Ecologist for The Everglades Foundation.

“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.

Florida estuaries-fragile buffers against a rising ocean

By Dinah Voyles Pulver, dinah.pulver@news-jrnl.com

Source: GateHouse Media

To anyone who has reeled in a prized redfish or plucked an oyster from the water and eaten it straight out of the shell, the value of a healthy Florida estuary needs little explanation. Created by an earlier period of rising seas, Florida’s estuaries are fragile zones where fresh water flowing from springs and rivers mingles with salt water in a balance that ebbs and flows in a rhythm set by weather and phases of the moon.

The estuaries provide a sheltered, nutrient-rich environment for abundant marine life and serve as nurseries for the surrounding oceans. They also generate billions of dollars of economic impact each year from commercial and recreational fishing, boating and bird-watching. And, for much of the state, they provide a buffer against tropical storms and hurricanes.

Now, scientists and advocates warn these estuaries could be redefined as they become Florida’s last stand against the encroaching sea.

Rising sea levels “will reshape the coastline of Florida in ways that are almost difficult for humans to wrap their arms around,” said Duane DeFreese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon Council. “It’s hard for us to look 50 or 100 years ahead, but it’s going to change dramatically.”

Already, rising seas and warmer temperatures bring higher tides, greater erosion, higher salinity and increasing acidity along the bays, sounds and lagoons that surround Florida. Dying trees have been documented in coastal forests in the Big Bend region along the Gulf Coast south of Tallahassee as saltier water moves inland. Erosion is eating away at shell middens in Mosquito Lagoon, in the northern end of the Indian River Lagoon.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict sea levels could rise around three feet as early as 2070 in Florida, using mid-range scenarios. Their higher-end scenarios show a three-foot sea level rise could occur within about 30 years.

One study by The Nature Conservancy found a 3.2-foot rise in sea level would cause the loss of more than 170,000 acres of coastal forest and 63,000 acres of tidal flats in six estuary systems along Florida’s Gulf Coast between Pensacola Bay and Charlotte Harbor.

‘Nursery for the oceans’

Estuaries are often called cradles of the sea because of the tremendous variety of marine species that spend at least part of their life cycles there, such as green turtles, bull sharks, tarpon and other game fish. seagrass beds, marshes and the tangled roots of mangrove trees that grow in the fragile zones provide food and shelter for myriad species, from delicate seahorses to massive manatees.

A bottlenose dolphin breaks the surface as it feeds with several other dolphins in the Indian River in Mosquito Lagoon. [News-Journal/David Tucker]

“It’s crazy the number of marine organisms that spend some portion of their life cycle in an estuary,” said Edie Widder, chief executive officer and senior scientist at Ocean Research & Conservation Association Inc. in Fort Pierce. “They are a nursery for the oceans.” Given the small amount of real estate they cover, Widder said the estuaries have “an incredibly outsized impact on the oceans.”

Estuaries drive a lot of the economy of the United States, said DeFreese.

The reason estuaries are so valuable — and so fertile — is because they’re transition zones, where nutrients that run off the land help increase the productivity, said Jim Culter, senior scientist and program manager at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

Changes in the balance of nutrients or in the balance of fresh and salt water can have a big impact. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have found that salinity increases during droughts can cause blue crabs to move upstream, and decreases in fresh water can reduce oyster populations.

As sea levels rise, Culter said the ocean will move farther inland and areas that host the fragile balance of salt and fresh water will shrink. Many estuaries already suffer from issues unrelated to sea level, such as loads of pollution and severely altered watersheds that provide either too much or too little fresh water.

Jim Culter, a senior scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory, and his team prepare to measure southern hardshell clams before planting them in a Sarasota Bay estuary on June 3. (Herald-Tribune photo / Carla Varisco)

A Geological Survey study released in June examined 28 years of data collected in 10 Florida estuaries that support commercial shellfish harvesting. The study, by John Lisle and Leslie Robbins, published in the journal “Estuaries and Coasts,” found the water in estuaries is getting more acidic, which limits availability of the components of calcium carbonate — crucial for animals such as oysters to build their shells. The study also found that oxygen levels in the water are decreasing. Six of the 10 estuaries have increased salinity and three have increasing water temperatures.

The estuaries, the scientists concluded, are being affected by changes taking place worldwide, including increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, development along the coast and increased nutrients in the water. The estuaries studied included St. Joseph, Cedar Key, south Tampa Bay, the St. Johns River North and three sections of the Indian River Lagoon.

Additional pressure from a changing climate and rising sea levels will cause further damage, said coastal ecologists and estuary advocates. Some, such as Arnoldo Valle-Levinson, a professor in the University of Florida’s Civil and Coastal Engineering department, wonder if sea level rise is partly to blame for ongoing troubles in the Indian River Lagoon, which has been plagued in recent years by toxic algal blooms, vanishing seagrass and fish kills.

‘A game of inches’

To describe how sea level rise might change things, scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory say when seas rise two feet in Sarasota Bay, the very lowest tides will be where today’s highest tides are.

Nuisance high tides already occur across the state, said Randall Parkinson, a coastal geologist affiliated with Florida International University.

In June, a NOAA study reported the average annual frequency of high tide flooding in the continental U.S. hit an all-time record in the past year. In Florida, new records for number of days with high tide flooding were set in Naples and Cedar Key between May 2017 and April 2018, and all 17 tide stations had high tide flooding above frequencies seen nearly 20 years ago.

The Salt River in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Gulf Coast is one of Florida’s many coastal estuaries. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says nutrient-rich estuaries around the country provide essential habitat for more than 75 percent of the nation’s commercial fish catch. Scientists are trying to determine what the impacts of rising sea levels will be on that fish production. (FWC photo provided by Kyle Miller)

That trend is expected to continue, likely at an accelerated rate, the study’s authors concluded, exacerbated by a combination of high astronomical tides, winter storms and tropical storms.

Hurricane Irma’s impacts were felt across much of Florida in September 2017, but it was just one of several named and unnamed storms that caused trouble over a period of months during the fall and winter.

Incremental rises in sea level are increasingly making communities along estuaries more vulnerable, with the potential for adding thousands of dollars in flood damages, said DeFreese. “This is a game of inches.”

As rising seawater penetrates farther and farther inland into tidal and freshwater creeks, it will gradually change the function and form of wetlands and other ecosystems that surround the estuaries, said Parkinson, who is preparing a vulnerability assessment for the Indian River Lagoon.

Estuaries will become saltier, and areas of brackish water along the waterways will shrink. The areas of estuaries that fluctuate in salinity will be more compressed and move upstream in the creeks and rivers that feed freshwater to the estuaries.

Modeling the future

Scientists have been able to look at how rising sea levels will impact coastal wetlands and forests by using the “Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model,” developed in the 1980s to study the impacts of the changing climate. Scientists can put in decades of data, including water level measurements and elevations, and examine potential impacts across a system.

Laura Geselbracht, senior marine scientist at the Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Laura Geselbracht, a senior marine scientist at the Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, started by looking at Apalachicola Bay, eventually expanding the study with her colleagues across the northern Gulf Coast and as far south as Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. They looked at how sea level rise would impact coastal habitat and human communities along six estuaries.

“One thing we did notice is that with, say, as little as 0.6 meters of sea level rise — about a foot and a half — you see significant changes,” said Geselbracht. “And in some areas we’ve already seen significant changes.

“In places like the southern Big Bend, you can see sea level rise in action,” she added. “You can see where it’s been and what impact it has had.”

They concluded more than 170,000 acres of coastal forest could be lost with a 39-inch increase in sea level in the Gulf of Mexico, a rise that NOAA’s mid-range scenarios project could happen in some locations along the Gulf by 2070.

The study found 63,000 acres of tidal flats could be lost across the six estuaries, including 36,000 acres in Tampa Bay. When tide flats and dunes are lost, said Geselbracht, “urban areas become more vulnerable to coastal storms.”

They checked their model by putting in decades worth of data collected at Waccasassa Bay, near Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast, to see if it would accurately project the changes now occurring. It did, said Geselbracht.

Overall, coastal wetlands along the state’s Gulf Coast are likely to change substantially, she said, including inland river floodplains on the northern Gulf Coast. If you squeeze an area where a species occurs, she said, “you’d anticipate you’d greatly reduce the population of that species.”

The marine life affected by these shrinking estuaries are some of “the ones we care most about,” said Culter. “Oysters, blue crabs, clams, scallops, shellfish and things that are common that we fish for.”

Kelly McLoughlin, an intern at Mote Marine Laboratory, measures clams before they are planted in a Sarasota Bay estuary in June. (Herald-Tribune photo / Carla Varisco)

That will in turn have an impact on commercial fisheries and their contribution to local economies. The filter feeders, such as clams and oysters, also are important for water quality.

Culter is working on shellfish restoration projects, including placing clams in Sarasota Bay and watching their growth.

Seagrass beds, which form the foundation of marine life in many estuaries, also are expected to feel the impact of rising seas. The grass beds are important because they provide places for marine life to shelter and forage and they absorb nutrients and carbon.

But the grass beds may be one example of an instance where sea level rise will cause changes that might not be considered good or bad, just different.

Deeper water levels are expected to make it more difficult for seagrass to thrive and grow in some locations because the grass can only grow in areas where sunlight can penetrate to the bottom. For example, said Culter, the average depth of seagrass in Sarasota Bay might be six feet. As sea level rises, those grass beds will start to lose their deep edges as the water becomes too deep for the sunlight to reach the grass.

But, depending on water quality, seagrass beds might move to new areas that go underwater. Geselbracht said grass beds might colonize some of the tidal flats as they become submerged.

Transitions among the ecosystems will depend in part on the amount of undeveloped land available for marshes and other estuary features to move to, and how much that migration is blocked by existing development.

As the ecosystems change, studies indicate some species could be “winners,” and others might be “losers.” For example, with salt marsh projected to expand in some areas, it’s possible some animals might benefit, such as the salt marsh vole, an endangered rodent found near Cedar Key. Bird species that use tidal flats, such as the reddish egret, for example, could suffer as the flats shrink.

But no one understands those impacts on species yet, said Jon Oetting, a conservation planner with the Florida Natural Areas Inventory. Much will depend on how rapidly the transitions occur and how much the habitats are separated from each other.

As the marshes expand or shrink, it could have profound impacts on the surrounding estuaries, said Geselbracht. “Some people might think ‘Oh that’s just a marsh,’ but that marsh is worth millions of dollars in recreational and commercial benefits.”

Terns take flight from a small sandbar in Mosquito Lagoon in the Indian River Lagoon system in March. (News-Journal / David Tucker])

Appraising a marsh

It’s relatively easy to put a monetary value on things like homes, condominiums and infrastructure, said Jennifer Kassakian, a senior associate at Industrial Economics, a consulting firm that has studied the Indian River Lagoon. It’s harder to put a monetary value on ecological resources.

Kassakian has worked on projects that help people understand the value ecological communities provide, economically and otherwise. For example, an estuary has value as a nursery ground for marine species, including commercially important species such as crabs, clams and fish.

Using the same model The Nature Conservancy scientists used, she and a colleague, Jim Neumann, a principal at Industrial Economics, looked at the impacts of sea level rise on wetlands in the Indian River Lagoon.

The study showed there would be “substantial change” in the lagoon, including the loss of irregularly inundated marshes and swamps and substantial gains in acres of mangroves and open water, she said. The study, which looked at the amount of carbon dioxide that could be absorbed by the lagoon and surrounding plants, concluded the estuary would see an increase in carbon storage, but a decrease in productivity.

With a 47-inch rise in sea level, the study concluded the lagoon overall would see a loss of 24 percent of its wetlands.

Wetlands are important because they provide a buffer for storm surge and absorb the energy from waves. “If you don’t have that buffer,” said Kassakian, “if you allow that water to come straight up to people’s houses, that’s a pretty direct impact.”

Correcting problems

Estuary groups across Florida are assessing “vulnerabilities” and pinpointing areas where intervention, such as limiting new development, might have the most impact. Several are working in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Ready Estuaries program.

“People like simple answers,” said Culter. “They want things to be fixed. That’s not going to happen. It’s going to take a lot of thought and discussion to deal with it.”

University of Central Florida students and faculty work to place shell bags along the shoreline of Mosquito Lagoon to stabilize the shoreline on a Sunday in May. UCF professor Linda Walters and her students and partners have worked on the project to stablize shorelines in the lagoon system by creating living shorelines for more than a decade. (News-Journal / Nigel Cook)

Correcting the many existing problems in the estuaries will help make them more resilient to change, said estuary officials on both coasts.

Rather than trying to “slap a Band-Aid” on things, it’s important to think long-term, looking at long-term strategies and large-scale, multiyear projects that can really get to some of the root problems, said Jennifer Hecker, executive director of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program.

Like many estuaries statewide, the watershed around Charlotte Harbor has been greatly altered. Many areas in Hecker’s region are either not receiving enough water or receiving too much water. Utilities in the region are learning to correctly manage the water, she said, “to build communities that will be better protected from the harmful effects of a changing climate.”

If the region can store water and protect its freshwater supplies, said Hecker, the hope is that they will be able to “push back on sea level rise and saltwater intrusion to the greatest degree possible.”

A similar strategy is needed for the Indian River Lagoon, said DeFreese. Every action that makes the lagoon system more resilient to sea level rise comes back to human impacts already identified, he said. “It’s wastewater, it’s stormwater, it’s living shoreline replacement, and it’s getting filter feeders back into the system.”

Parkinson, the consultant studying the vulnerabilities of the Indian River Lagoon, said preparing plans is one thing. Implementing the plans is “a much bigger challenge,” he said. “It requires people to make decisions that may not directly benefit them and it costs money.”

He sees three options for implementing the plans being developed across the state: 1) Protect and defend, 2) Adapt, or 3) Managed withdrawal from low-lying coastal areas.

Saving the shorelines

As groups around the state prepare to protect and defend, retaining or increasing the amount of natural, “living shoreline” is shaping up to be a key strategy. In areas where the shores are lined with marsh grasses, mangroves and oysters, the shorelines have the potential to help the land keep pace with rising sea levels, several scientists said. Safeguarding shorelines could help with the transition of coastal wetlands as seas rise.

Linda Walters, a biology professor at the University of Central Florida, is among those convinced living shorelines will be an important part of the solution. For more than a decade, she has worked with nonprofits, businesses and schools to collect oyster shells, grow mangroves, then place marsh grasses, mangroves and bags of oyster shells along shorelines all over the Indian River Lagoon system.

University of Central Florida students and faculty place shell bags along the shoreline of Mosquito Lagoon on a Sunday in May. Living shorelines such as this one, created with oysters, grass and mangroves, may help Florida’s estuaries transition as sea levels rise. Here, University of Central Florida (News-Journal / Nigel Cook)

Once established, oysters provide habitat for birds and fish as well as a hard structure that can protect shorelines from erosion, and wind and wave energy, she said. On the shorelines Walters has developed, the oysters are the initial defenders, providing wave breaks that give the plants time to get established. Marsh grasses help protect mangrove trees, and once the mangroves are established, their intertwined roots begin trapping sediment moving in the water and gradually the surface of the soil rises.

These shorelines with oysters, marsh grass and mangroves can accumulate sediment faster than the sea level is rising in some estuaries, and may help coastal wetlands transition from one kind to another as sea levels rise.

If the water in an estuary is allowed to move naturally up a slope, the mangrove trees will follow that transitional zone, said Candy Feller, a senior scientist and mangrove expert at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland. “In a perfect world, they will keep pace with rising sea levels.”

The problem in Florida is that people like the land-sea margin, said Feller. “They’ve built their houses there and their seawalls and everything.”

Parkinson and others say seawalls aren’t the answer.

“You can’t just build a wall,” because Florida is built on limestone and sand, he said. “The water would just go under or behind the seawall.”

The other option Parkinson raised is withdrawal from the shoreline. It’s “the only plan that is viable in the long term,” he said. “The longer we delay making the right choices, the more difficult it is to implement a plan and the more expensive it’s going to be.”

As DeFreese travels along the Indian River Lagoon, he said he’s beginning to see evidence of change in attitudes toward preparing for long-term sea level rise.

Widder, however, said she still sees too much “head in the sand thinking.”

“This is just going to be catastrophic for us,” she said. “Florida is so vulnerable. For us not to be anticipating the kinds of problems that we’re going to be facing is shortsighted and damaging to all of us.”

 

Future is Bright for train travel in Florida

First ride: Aboard Florida’s new Brightline train

Lisa Broadt, The (Stuart, Fla.) News, Published 9:11 p.m. ET Jan. 12, 2018 | Updated 9:12 p.m. ET Jan. 12, 2018

 

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On the eve of Brightline passenger rail launching in South Florida, the railroad already is looking beyond its original goal of service between Miami and Orlando.

Brightline’s intercity system could be expanded within Florida to Jacksonville or Tampa and could be replicated in other states with similar demographics, including Georgia and Texas, railroad officials said at a media event Friday.

“Our vision doesn’t stop here,” said Wes Edens, co-founder of Fortress Investment Group, Brightline’s parent company. “Our goal is to look at other corridors with similar characteristics — too long to drive, too short to fly.”

Brightline — the country’s only privately owned and operated passenger railroad — is to officially begin passenger service Saturday morning.

For now, trains will run between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. But the railroad will expand to Miami later this year, with full service to Orlando still two years away.

Elected officials and members of the media on Friday took the 40-minute trip on BrightGreen, one of Brightline’s five colorful diesel-electric trains.

It was a chance for the $3.1 billion railroad to show off the amenities they say will set Brightline apart from other forms of public transportation, including Tri-Rail, South Florida’s existing commuter rail.

Leather seats, wide aisles, bike racks, free wireless Internet — with two power outlets and two USB ports per seat — are among the amenities Brightline says will appeal to its target customers, which include tourists, business travelers and Millennials.

Friday’s event also was a chance for Brightline to introduce the staff that it says will provide world-class hospitality.

Train attendant Whytni Walker, 23, of West Palm Beach said she applied to Brightline because she wanted “to be part of something new.”

Walker said she believes the staff, many of whom are Millennials, are helping to create a vibrant atmosphere aboard the trains and in the stations.

“There’s energy everywhere,” Walker said. “Since training began, there hasn’t been a dull day.”

But even with the launch of service just hours away, Brightline officials on Friday were focused on the future.

The project’s successful launch — and performance in the coming years — could have implications for passenger rail nationwide, Edens said in an interview with USA TODAY.

To be economically viable, the railroad must capture 2% of the approximately 100 million annual trips between Miami and Orlando, according to Edens.

The private-equity investor and co-owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks said he’s confident Brightline will deliver.

“The service offering and the convenience and the expense of it are so compelling that 2% seems like a good risk,” Edens said.

The Brightline model could be replicated in other highly populated, highly congested city pairs, such as Atlanta-Charlotte, Houston-Dallas and Dallas-Austin, according to Edens.

The company has long said that its use of the Florida East Coast Railway — a Miami-to-Jacksonville corridor established in the late 19th century but currently used only for freight — was a key factor in making Brightline financially viable.

Similar infrastructure exists in Texas and Georgia and is, in fact, abundant in many areas of the country, according to Edens.

“The U.S. has very poor passenger rail, but the best freight system in the world,” he said. “The existing infrastructure is very usable in many of these places.”

Within Florida, Tampa and Jacksonville are among the most obvious expansion opportunities, Edens said, adding that each comes with unique benefits. Expansion from Orlando to Tampa, Florida’s second-largest city by population, would be aided by the fact that the state owns right-of-way between the cities, while an expansion to Jacksonville, the northern terminus of the Florida East Coast Railway, would have the advantage of the existing infrastructure, according to Edens.

Introductory fares between West Palm and Fort Lauderdale are $10 each way for Smart Service, Brightline’s coach class, and $15 for Select Service, its business class. Seniors, active military personnel and veterans will receive a 10% discount, and children younger than 12 will ride for half price as part of discounted introductory fares, according to Brightline.

Initial service will include 10 daily round trips on weekdays and nine on weekends between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.

Brightline ticketing and schedule information is available online and through the railroad’s new mobile app.

Miami’s New Vision as a Global City seeks to expand Economic Opportunity

The Miami Urban Future Initiative is a joint initiative with FIU’s College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts and CCG sponsored in part by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation,  which will lead new research and mapping on economic, occupational, creative and technological assets in Miami, in partnership with renowned experts, to provide necessary data, evidence and strategy to grow a more inclusive, creative economy for a 21st century global Miami. Miami has reached a crossroads. Its economy – historically based on tourism, hospitality, transportation, and real-estate development – has deepened, diversified, and become more creative and idea-based, as banking, media, arts, education, and new technology-based industries have assumed a larger role. The region now finds itself at a critical inflection point.

While growing, Miami’s creative class — those who make a living by using their minds in arts & design, science, technology, law, & medical industries or academia, media, management, & finance — only make up 25% of the workforce, a much smaller share than regions like Washington, D.C. (44.6%),  Chicago or& L.A. (31.5% each). Miami also suffers from challenges arising from a rapidly growing urban center. This Initiative will develop additional research about Miami’s creative economy and divides, while working across the business, civic, and academic communities to shape a constructive, future-oriented dialogue.

Through this Initiative, they hope to provide the thought leadership and awareness required to guide Miami’s evolution as a global city through data-driven research and assessments of the key trends shaping the region, disseminate this information and inform the broad strategic vision for the region’s private and public stakeholders through ongoing local convenings and briefs and bring global thought-leaders and practitioners to bear on thinking about the region’s future through high-level events and convenings on issues important to Miami and global cities.

More than two decades ago, Alejandro Portes, now at the University of Miami, and Alex Stepick of FIU dubbed Miami as a “city on the edge,” with many assets and many challenges. The region’s transformation, they added, was a story of “change without a blueprint.” Miami has seen one of its greatest growth waves since that time, benefiting from the strategic action of visionary stakeholders, groups, universities and colleges, and mayors since. It is now time to renew the region’s commitment to a regional strategy and to engage a broad region-wide conversation about a more inclusive prosperity that takes into account the mounting realities and challenges that face the region today. The time to act is now: if it misses this opportunity, the region risks losing the economic advantages it has achieved.

To this end, FIU’s College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts and Creative Class Group (CCG) created the FIU-Miami Creative City Initiative, an ongoing collaboration to better understand the forces that are shaping the future of Miami. Their aim is to build upon the strong foundation created by the region’s political, business, academic, and civic leadership and organizations over the past several decades to help identify the key things Miami can do to position itself as a more innovative, creative, inclusive, and prosperous global city and region.

Miami Urban Future Initiative Research Report: Miami Ranks 6th Among Large U.S. Metros on the New Urban Crisis Index

Miami’s rankings on the various equity metrics include:

  • Income Inequality. Miami ranks second among large U.S. metros in terms of income inequality.
  • Wealth Segregation. Miami ranks tenth among large U.S. metros according to its segregation of the wealthy, a measure of the residential segregation of households with incomes of $200,000 or more.
  • Overall Segregation. Miami ranks sixteenth among large U.S. metros on the Segregation Inequality Index, a combined measure of economic segregation and both wage and income inequality.
  • Housing Unaffordability. Miami ranks among the twenty least-affordable metros in the world in terms of its “median multiple,” or ratio of median housing prices to median household income.
  • Concentrated Poverty. 14 percent of Greater Miami households and one in five families with children lived below the poverty line.
  • Middle Class Decline. In Miami, the middle-class share of population declined from 51 percent in 2000 to 48.5 percent in 2014.

Walter Elias Disney: Transportation Visionary and Urban Planner

“I don’t believe there’s a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities. But where do we begin… how do we start answering this great challenge?” -Walt Disney

EPCOT, or the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, began as Walt Disney’s idea of creating a better city. A utopian environment enriched in education, and in expanding technology. A perfect city with dependable public transportation, a soaring civic center covered by an all-weather dome, and model factories concealed in green belts that were readily accessible to workers housed in idyllic suburban subdivisions nearby.

The idea of having a perfect city was one of Walt Disney’s last projects. Before his death, in late 1966, Walt had bought up thousands of acres in central Florida, for an East Coast Disneyland, Walt Disney World. But all this was leading up to Walt’s true vision, a city without dirt, without grime, an experimental prototype city.

This idea of a perfect environment actually formed in Walt’s mind way before the actual thought of EPCOT. Disneyland is a perfect example. Its 25 foot Earthen Berm protects it from the outside world. With clean streets, and walkways, Disneyland was Walt’s first idea to have a better city, not like the 1950’s Los Angeles where Walt worked and lived.

Plans for the Florida Project, “Project X,” were being designed in a special room at the Disney Studios. This “Florida Room” had high ceilings and padded walls for pinning up plans. This room is where master plans were created for EPCOT, as well as Walt Disney World.

“EPCOT,” is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. WED Designer Marvin Davis said Walt created the phrase, he thought it was just right.

Shortly before Walt’s death, he made a film showcasing this new city. Before the filming he gave his presentation to a few friends, and afterwards asked “does this sound like a city you’d want to live in?” In the final product the EPCOT movie was a model for solving “today’s city problems . . . through proper master planning.” The movie continued, although, the city on the film was just a set, with a series of maps and charts. With a strong rhetorical image of wholeness, harmony, safety, and underlying order.

Unfortunately the EPCOT Walt Disney envisioned was never created. Walt Disney died of lung cancer at the hospital across the street from his studio. Work on EPCOT continued with fresh intensity. Although, the team would have to rely on the past thoughts from Walt; before Walt would come into the Florida room 2-3 times a week, bringing fresh ideas, and new excitement to the bunch. Marvin Davis recalls how “he designed the whole traffic flow around EPCOT on a little napkin.”

Roy Disney, Walt’s brother, was troubled by the thought of building a city. What did a Movie Studio know about water lines, power cables, sewer systems, and municipal government? When Marvin Davis presented his plans to Roy, they met with a sad, simple, answer. “Marvin,” Roy Disney spoke, “Walt’s dead.” So was the city known as EPCOT. So, plans then were shifted, first, to a Disneyland East- Magic Kingdom Park- a taller, and bigger park. Then a series of hotels, located on the edge of the property, to keep out unwanted intrusions.

Even though Walt’s dream of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was never developed, a World’s Fair type EPCOT does now exist. Although, a city truly new and experimental was designed, and is located on the Disney World Property, Celebration Florida is where remnant of EPCOT now resides. One wonders, what if Walt lived longer, would there have been an EPCOT? This question is inevitably unanswerable.

Walt Disney’s Vision of an EPCOT