Regional officials are worried that a nearly $500-million project to ease Orlando congestion will lead to more delays for motorists in Plant City and beyond.
The state says CSX plans to route four more trains a day through Plant City. CSX denies there will be more train traffic, although it is moving most freight through the city from one set of rails — the A Line — to the S Line.
Unfortunately for Plant City motorists, trains have to slow down considerably on the S Line due to a curve in downtown tracks.
Twenty to 30 trains a day travel through the city, many on the A Line, which has a 60 mph speed limit.
City Manager Greg Horwedel and other city leaders have been meeting with representatives of CSX, the Florida Department of Transportation and a state consultant. Horwedel said he'd like to see if overpasses or other solutions are a possibility.
"We want to make sure we don't have more and more delays for drivers in our city," Horwedel said.
Of course, it's nothing new for traffic to grind to a halt as long, slow-moving trains chug through downtown. The city was named for railroad magnate Henry B. Plant, and trains are a way of life here.
The A and S Lines both run through the heart of the city, and emergency officials try to make sure they have ambulances and police cars on both sides of the tracks at any given time.
"I don't want a slow train to come between us and a call," said Police Chief Bill McDaniel, who has divided the city into patrol zones based on the location of train tracks.
Complaints are a lot less frequent since a $2 million rail improvement project about a dozen years ago more than doubled speeds on the S Line from 10 mph to 25 mph, McDaniel said.
Tracks crisscross the city, so there's virtually no escaping a delay when there's a long and slow train moving through downtown.
"Our concern is not just for now, but what's going to happen in the future and as the economy gets better," Horwedel said. "What if they add even more trains?"
CSX spokesman Gary Sease said the Jacksonville-based railroad is willing to work with the city on its concerns.
The company is going to reroute rail traffic because a new Orlando commuter rail will necessitate moving many freight trains off the company's A Line, Sease said. But he predicts that Plant City won't see any more major impacts.
CSX is shifting freight trains from one track to another, but "Plant City will not see any net increase in the number of trains," he said.
There seems to be confusion over CSX's plans.
A spokesman for a consulting firm studying the regional impact of the shift in train traffic said four more trains a day will be routed through Plant City. And Horwedel said he understood from CSX that four additional trains had already been routed through Plant City.
Mike Gartz, a personal trainer who lives and works within a stone's throw of the tracks, said he's noticing a difference.
"It seems like there are a lot more trains," said Gartz, who lives off J. Arden Mays Boulevard and has a gym off Reynolds Street.
Gartz said he allows himself extra travel time when he visits clients in their homes, in case he gets caught by a train.
Some freight will still travel the A Line, but it will have to avoid peak times through Orlando when the commuter rail is in operation. In a related move, CSX is shutting down a major rail hub on the A Line in an Orlando suburb and moving it to Winter Haven on the S Line.
The state Department of Transportation is spending $2.8 million for a regional study on ways to soften the impact in the short term and consider long-range solutions that could include construction of a new rail line through Polk County. But costs range as high as $882 million, said Dick Combs of RK & K, a firm serving as a consultant for DOT on the project.
DOT wants to ensure that any solutions don't involve shifting train traffic from one city to another, said Brian Bollas, a spokesman for RK & K. He expects a recommendation in about a year.
The issue boils down to "quality of life," and many cities are potentially impacted, including Lakeland, which also has the A and S lines, Bollas said.
"It's frustrating for motorists when they have to wait for a train to pass," he said.
CSX, for its part, says it is doing what it can to minimize the impacts by spending $198 million to make trains move more quickly and efficiently along the S Line. The work includes installing side tracks, so fast-moving trains can overtake slower-moving ones, among other improvements, Sease said.
Jerry Lofstrom, owner of the Whistle Stop Café, said trains are a big attraction for downtown. Customers often watch trains go by from his restaurant just off the A Line.
"We have parents who will bring their children to watch the train and ask if we know when the trains will come by," he said.
But he calls trains a mixed blessing.
"You have people who come to town just to watch the trains go by. They know this is a railroad town," said Lofstrom.
"Then you have people who live here who are stuck in the traffic. They worry if police or fire trucks or ambulance will be able to reach them in an emergency if they get blocked by a train."
"It's a paradox."