The Murder Mystery Dinner Theater train reopened Friday in Fort Myers for the first time since Hurricane Ian hit Sept. 28.
That source of entertainment is a small portion of the business provided to Southwest Florida by the Seminole Gulf Railway.
The railway is in peril and is hoping for public, government funding to restore its private business. The railroad bridges crossing the Peace River near Arcadia and the Caloosahatchee River from Fort Myers to North Fort Myers were destroyed by the hurricane’s flooding and storm surge.
So far, the railway is spending about $6 million in restoring the damaged Peace River bridges. Seminole Gulf Railway Executive Vice President Robert Fay hopes access across the Peace River will be restored by the end of January, allowing the railway to create a makeshift train depot in North Fort Myers off Bayshore Road so it could transport supplies over the Caloosahatchee River from there.
Fixing the bridges across the Caloosahatchee River would restore the railway’s access to North Naples, but the railway doesn’t have the funds to make those fixes.
Congressman Byron Donalds is aware of the issue and looking into a bill that would help railroads during emergencies, Donalds’ staff said.
“We need $10ish million to get the bridges over the Caloosahatchee completed. Within a few months rather than a year or more. That’s an honest answer,” Fay said. “If we have to do it on our own, it’s going to take us, the Seminole Gulf Railway, more than a year to reopen service to Fort Myers. It’s a cash flow problem.”
Established in 1987, the railway transports all sorts of supplies, from all over North America and Mexico, into Southwest Florida, especially lumber and drywall to repair homes.
All of that material, for now, has to be diverted to a rail station in Sarasota and then trucked into the region from there, after Hurricane Ian’s storm surge and flooding destroyed the bridges and railroad tracks crossing the Peace River and the Caloosahatchee River.
One train-car load can carry enough shingles to restore 50 roofs or enough drywall to restore 150 rooms that are 20-by-20 feet, Fay said.
One train-car load of supplies is the equivalent of about four truckloads, which is how those materials are now arriving to Southwest Florida. It’s a more expensive method of moving, about 35% more in costs that must be passed along to consumers on top of the inflated costs that have been in place since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every ton of debris that gets hauled out is a ton of material that needs to come back in,” Fay said.
Hurricane Ian increased the business of Marjam Supply, which supplies drywall and other material to area construction contractors. It also increased its costs because of the shutdown railway.
“It’s the biggest need,” said Scott Botyos, general manager of Marjam Supply, located adjacent to the railway’s tracks off Alico and Gator roads in south Fort Myers. “And our availability is getting reduced, because we’re waiting on the suppliers and a trucking company instead of the rail lines sending it in and dropping it off. The railway literally pulls into my yard. Hopefully, it gets fixed as soon as possible. Right now, we’re on a two- to three-week backlog for drywall.”
Andy Fossick, senior traffic and logistics manager for 84 Lumber, said the shutdown railway created logistical issues for his company and impacted profits as well.
“Long story short, the transition trucking rail to our store obviously costs us more, as we have to pay for the offload as well as the trucking costs to the store,” Fossick said. “Ultimately, we’ll have to build that cost into the cost of our material on order, which ultimately hurts margins.
“Also, a negative effect is the transit time is much longer. With a lumber market as unstable as this one, is we buy product with the intent for it to land when the market cost is an advantage to us. Now, it may not.”