Silent treatment

One key issue for the new Boca Raton City Council may require much more talk than action.

That issue is creating “quiet zones” at railroad crossings once All Aboard Florida begins operating daily passenger service between South Florida and Orlando. The private firm expects to start running trains in 2016, with 16 headed north each day and 16 south. The Palm Beach County station will be in West Palm Beach.

The new service will more than double the number of trains on the FEC track that runs just west of Dixie Highway through downtowns in Boca Raton, Delray Beach and throughout the region. For now, only freight trains use the FEC track. Tri-Rail and Amtrak share the CSX tracks just west of Interstate 95 with freight traffic.

If each of those 32 All Aboard Florida trains has to blow its whistle, residents near the 10 gate crossings in Boca Raton will be annoyed very soon. Though the trains won’t roll through much later than 9 p.m., they will start running at 6 a.m.

Boca Raton has also approved a lot of new development downtown, in hopes of attracting residents who will support existing and new downtown merchants. Those units surely will be more attractive if potential buyers know they can have a peaceful cocktail hour. In addition, the city is considering an application for a downtown Hyatt hotel.

Quiet zones are established when safety upgrades remove the need for trains to blow their horns. The upgrades can mean better gates, to prevent drivers from driving around the gates to beat a train, flashing lights and even something as simple as a median. There are quiet zones at the Tri-Rail crossings, where 15 trains pass each way during the week along with freight trains.

Though the cost of quiet zone upgrades varies, depending on the crossing, the overall cost is high. Last fall, All Aboard Florida agreed to pay for upgrades that will allow the crossings to handle the new, roughly 1,000-foot trains safely—freeing the cities of that cost—but those upgrades won’t be enough to qualify the crossings as quiet zones.

The county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization has pledged $6.6 million, but that won’t be enough. So the cities have asked the Florida Legislature for help. A county lobbyist on Wednesday expressed optimism that the money might be in the final state budget. Palm Beach and Broward and counties also have applied for a federal grant. Since the All Aboard Florida service could lead to commuter service on the FEC track—long a goal of the coastal cities—all elected officials will want to make a lot of noise about quiet zones.

Shelf life?                              

For those in Boca Raton rooting for the new Office Depot —and that should be just about everybody—it was a jolt to hear the latest news from Office Depot’s main competitor.

Staples announced that it would close 225 stores, or roughly 12 percent of the company’s stores in North America, by next year as part of a $500-million cost-cutting plan. Staples’ long reign as the leading office-supply retailer forced Office Depot to merge with Office Max, which had ranked second and third. Fortunately, the new Office Depot will remain in Boca Raton, not Naperville, Ill., where Office Max had its headquarters. Office Depot is one of two Fortune 500 companies with headquarters in Florida. (The second is Juno Beach-based NextEra Energy).

Office Depot faced a big enough challenge just against Staples. But the Staples announcement showed that both companies face challenges common to brick-and-mortar retailers. For one thing, more sales of office supplies to individuals are moving online. A survey showed that in 2012, more of the office-supply business shifted online than that for the 15 industries surveyed. Staples may shift to smaller stores with kiosks where customers can place online orders for products not offered at the store. Target and Costco also are pushing sales of office supplies.

As for Office Depot, which must employ nearly 2,000 people in Boca Raton to qualify for promised public incentives, sales of $11.2 billion in 2013 were up 5 percent, yet Office Depot lost $205 million for the year. Merger costs and savings, of course, will affect the company’s finances until 2016, when CEO Roland Smith says all aspects of the merger will be complete. Combining the companies will go hand in hand, he said in a news release, with “rationalizing the U.S. retail store base.” Office Depot has about 1,900 stores in North America.

Mr. Smith forecasts lower revenue for Office Depot in 2014 but a better future for the company. More than just those working at the headquarters hope that he is right.

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.