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‘Get off the bridge!’ Scofflaws prolong delays at Brickell Avenue bridge

Pedestrians cross the Brickell Avenue drawbridge on June 29 — despite the crossing gates being down and the drawbridge operator, through speakers, asking them to stop.
Pedestrians cross the Brickell Avenue drawbridge on June 29 — despite the crossing gates being down and the drawbridge operator, through speakers, asking them to stop. Miami Herald Staff

Even though bells chime and red lights flash, six pedestrians ignore the crossing gates at the Brickell Avenue bridge one afternoon in late June. An increasingly frustrated bridge tender yells at them over her loudspeaker:

OFF THE BRIDGE! GET OFF THE BRIDGE! CLEAR OFF THE BRIDGE!

Despite the obvious warnings that the drawbridge is about to rise, the pedestrians saunter across while drivers continue to cue on either side of the crossing. More than three minutes tick by. The bridge tender’s voice gets more and more high-pitched and urgent as she repeats her commands.

It is a scene that plays out regularly in downtown Miami. Of the 10 drawbridges that span the 5.5-mile-long Miami River, the one that causes the most consternation is on Brickell Avenue, where traffic jams affect tourism and trade. A variety of issues play into the city’s bridge problems – such as overdevelopment, a traffic pattern change last year that resulted in the removal of a northbound lane leading up to the bridge, and a lack of synchronization of traffic signals to improve the flow of vehicles. Until the development of a midtown tunnel or the invention of flying cars, the bridge traffic will likely remain a problem.

What often gets overlooked is the degree to which scofflaws — both pedestrians and boaters — delay drivers. Congestion is exacerbated by those who fail to follow the rules, and little is done to correct the problem.

vleet
Antillean Marine Shipping Corp. Capt. Morgan Van Vleet requests the opening of a drawbridge as he steers his tug on June 29. Bryan Cereijo Miami Herald Staff

Bridge traffic looks a lot different from the helm of a tugboat waiting for pedestrians to clear. From the wheelhouse of the Capt. Babun, tugboat captain Morgan Van Vleet with the Miami River Towing Company back throttles at the controls to hold steady in the current. Miami River Commission Chairman Horacio Stuart Aguirre stands next to Van Vleet and fumes.

“Not because we aren’t ready, and not because she’s not willing,” Aguirre says of the bridge tender’s decision not to raise the bridge. “She has been instructed to sit with her arms folded until that bridge is clear.”

It takes the scofflaws more than three minutes to cross the bridge, roughly three times as long for the westward-bound tug to pass under it. Florida law prohibits pedestrian passage once the bridge raising signal is issued. The civil fine is a mere $15 — and that’s if there’s someone around to write a ticket. “It’s the old story, there’s never a cop around (when you need one),” says Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office. His boss, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, is a member of the Miami River Commission.

“If you don’t enforce it, then it’s moot,” Rundle says. Violators should be ticketed — and the price of the ticket should increase — until it becomes second nature to abide by the law, she adds. “They need to do a lighting system: No pedestrian beyond this point, at this time,” Rundle says. “Maybe gates, stricter enforcement, maybe a higher penalty,” she adds. “I assume there are frequent pedestrians that live on one side or work on one side or eat on the other side or something like that. Maybe you can do second, third violations.”

It takes the scofflaws more than three minutes to cross the bridge, roughly three times as long for the westward-bound tug to pass under it. Florida law prohibits pedestrian passage once the bridge raising signal is issued.

Signs on the crossing gates clearly state: No Pedestrians Allowed Beyond This Point While Bridge is Opening and Closing. The river commission would like to go further and install pedestrian gates, as well as “white glove” security officers at either end of the bridge remind pedestrians of the law and issue tickets. Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who also chairs the Miami Downtown Development Authority, supports such a move.

Russell told the Herald that existing civilian traffic officers may be redeployed to the bridge. He is currently working on a proposal for a pilot program where the uniformed officers will stop and educate pedestrians who might otherwise attempt to walk across the bridge after the crossing gates go down. “They are not there to arrest or ticket anybody, per se,” Russell says.

Pedestrians are only part of the problem. Sometimes boaters flout the regulations. The rules state that Brickell Avenue Bridge shall open on signal. During the work week, Monday through Friday, except on federal holidays, the bridge can be opened on the hour and half hour between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Restrictions apply during the morning, midday and evening rush, where the bridge need not open from 7:35 to 8:59 a.m., 12:05 to 12:59 p.m., and 4:35 to 5:59 p.m. Traffic planners are exploring the possibility of expanding the morning and evening curfew by 30 minutes.

The exception: federal vessels, tugs, and those under tow or facing an emergency. The opening schedule does not apply to cargo ships, which sail according to the tides and are guided along the river by tugboats. Due to safety issues regarding the large ships that are not sailing under their own power, the bridge tender is obliged to open the drawbridge on demand, when safe to do so. The same holds true for sailboats and other vessels that break down and need to be towed.

Pedestrians are only part of the problem. Sometimes boaters flout the regulations. According to records provided by FDOT, from January 2016 through May 2017, the bridge tenders logged 69 unnecessary bridge openings on Brickell Avenue for a variety of pleasure craft from sports fishing boats to yachts.

Sometimes, captains request an opening even when their craft is fully operational, but their antennas or outriggers exceed the 24-foot clearance under the Brickell Avenue bridge. Federal law explicitly states those “appurtenances that are not essential to navigation” must be lowered. Barry Dragon, director of the 7th Coast Guard District bridge program, says failure to do so can result in fines just shy of $28,000.

The bridge tenders record the violations, logging them with the Florida Department of Transportation. The U.S. Coast Guard oversees the civil penalties and can issue citations based on those reports. To date, no citations have been issued to boaters who caused an unnecessary opening of the Brickell Avenue Bridge, Dragon says. But, he adds, the goal is compliance, not fines. “Generally speaking,” he says, “we would like compliance. Just like you get a fine if you don’t have a life jacket on board, we would prefer that you have the life jacket on board rather than collect money from you.”

According to records provided by FDOT, from January 2016 through May 2017, the bridge tenders logged 69 unnecessary bridge openings on Brickell Avenue for a variety of pleasure craft from sports fishing boats to yachts. Some had nautical names such as Deep Devocean, Sea Venture, Son of the Sea, Island Time, Fly’N Fish, Blue Marlin, Scylla, Steel Aweigh, Wahoo, and Wet Dream. Others possibly were named for loved ones: Hillary Lynn, Jaye Renee, Jenny G., Jorde, Joyce, Kara II, Natalie Elise, Tio Luispe, Big Daddy and Little Giant.

Extended antennas and outriggers were the main cause for the openings. In one instance, a baffled bridge tender commented that “there was no cause” when the captain of the White Bay-based yacht named Zen asked for an opening at 5:18 p.m. on Jan. 24, 2016, despite a notation from bridge tender Oward Jimenez stating, “The vessel had space for a clear passage.” Another yacht, the Doqua of Fort Lauderdale asked for openings at 3:34 and 8:15 p.m. on April 16, 2016, even though bridge tender William Ferguson noted “N/A boat was small enough to pass under.”

On Jan. 25, 2016, bridge tender Mamie Hernandez noted that the Reel Bidder, a sports fishing boat base in Miami, requested an opening but “all he had to do is put down outriggers.”

Some of the boat captains request an opening only once, after being warned by the bridge tender. Others, are repeat offenders. Between Feb. 17 and May 6, 2017, the Miami-based sports fishing boat Pure Passion reportedly requested bridge openings seven times. The first request came at 6 p.m., one minute after the evening rush-hour curfew ended, on Friday, Feb. 17. Bridge tender J. Casuso asked the captain “to lower outriggers. Captain said they were broken.”

The outrigger apparently remained broken, necessitating unnecessary bridge openings on the following weekend days of Feb. 25, March 11, April 2 and May 6, as well as two Fridays: March 31 at 10:08 p.m. and April 28 at 10:45 p.m. Director Dragon maintains it would cost less to repair the outriggers than to pay the fine, adding, “It would definitely be an incentive.”

The Miami River supports a multibillion-dollar marine industry of tugs, cargo ships, sports fishermen and pleasure craft owners.

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