Traffic trouble in downtown Miami makes for bridge fight
When the Brickell Avenue drawbridge goes up, so do tempers of drivers trapped in downtown Miami gridlock.
But a proposal to alleviate traffic by extending lockdown times of the bridge during rush-hour periods has been rejected by the U.S. Coast Guard, angering commuters, business owners and residents in the city’s core hoping for relief. Average waiting time when the bridge goes up is seven minutes, and it often takes 20 minutes to travel less than one mile when traffic peaks.
The Coast Guard, which regulates the bridge, concluded in a recent report that closing the bridge for an extra 30 minutes in the morning and evening would have little to no effect on traffic congestion and might increase the amount of time the bridge would have to remain raised at other times to accommodate backed-up boat traffic on the Miami River.
The conflict pitting commuters vs. captains has grown in parallel with the downtown population, which has doubled to 88,000 since 2004. In the past 10 years alone, 40,000 new condominium units, office buildings and hotels have been built.
The bridge near the mouth of the river was reconstructed in 1995 but clearly not with current traffic flow in mind. Vessels can’t get through when it’s clamped shut and vehicles queue up for blocks when it’s raised.
“It’s always a tightrope trying to balance the needs of each mode of transportation,” said Barry Dragon, director of the 7th Coast Guard District bridge program. “When the bridge goes up, everyone sees it as the elephant in the room and thinks that not letting it open is the silver bullet. But we may make Brickell Avenue traffic worse. Adding 30 minutes to bridge closure times is not going to fix a problem caused by too many cars on a saturated roadway.”
The Downtown Development Authority and the Florida Department of Transportation disagree with the Coast Guard’s findings. Their comparative analysis, conducted by consultant A&P Transportation Engineers, showed implementing new closure or curfew times of 7:35 a.m. to 9:29 a.m. and 4:35 p.m. to 6:29 p.m. would make a significant difference for drivers. Current curfew times are 7:35-8:59 a.m., 12:05-12:59 p.m. and 4:35-5:59 p.m.
“I fully respect the job of the Coast Guard and the plight of the working river,” said Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who is also DDA chair. “What we’re devolving into is a battle of experts and a battle of wills. There is common ground to be had. But one glaring fact can’t be avoided: If we allow that bridge to be open at 6 p.m., we are crippling the city.”
While morning rush hour is painful, it’s worse from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. when volume over the bridge reaches 12,200 vehicles per hour. Opening the bridge on the current schedule at 6 and 6:30 p.m. exacerbates the impact, which has a ripple effect on surrounding streets and intersections. Extending closure to 6:29 p.m. would increase traffic flow by 38 percent, the study found.
But the Coast Guard produced a second analysis showing that the increase in the number of boats waiting in line for the openings would also increase the bridge’s opening time to 10-12 minutes.
“Maybe we can shift rather than extend the curfew periods to help empty the queues of cars,” Dragon said. “When the light turns green, it doesn’t necessarily empty the queue because there is such a huge backup. The bridge doesn’t even have to be open to create a backup of 5-6 blocks.”
The Miami River Marine Group, which represents the 25 boatyards, marinas, shipping terminals and agents on the working waterway, applauded the Coast Guard’s assessment as more accurate than what was described as DDA and FDOT’s “predetermined position.”
“The DDA has identified the Miami River marine industry as a scapegoat for the congestion caused by unchecked downtown development,” Miami River Marine Group executive director Mark Bailey said. “We are disturbed by a knee-jerk reaction to an ongoing problem caused by a lack of proper urban planning. The bridge is an easy target when the issue is a much larger one of downtown traffic and there is no quick fix.”
Bailey said forcing vessels — many of which must travel the river during high tides — to wait for two hours during rush-hour times “presents a navigational safety issue as they stack up.” Marine commerce, such as boat repair and cargo shipping, would also move elsewhere if access to the river becomes more limited.
“The Miami River is the front door to these marine businesses,” Bailey said. “If anyone else was asked to close their front door for five hours per day, it would be outrageous.”
But the DDA estimates that congestion caused by bridge openings adds up to $12 million per year in lost productivity and lost revenue for downtown businesses.
“We’re a growing, maturing city,” Russell said. “It’s not fair to say, ‘Oh, well, you should not have developed downtown, so it’s your fault.’
“We hear the complaints flood in: ‘Why is the bridge up at rush hour? This doesn’t make any sense.’ Commercial vessels should be able to work around a schedule we can agree on.”
And the number of cars isn’t going to decline. Growth continues apace. New projects are in the works, new towers will soon have new occupants and the population is projected to increase to 106,000 by 2021, said the DDA, which has pushed for at least a trial period for extended closure times.
“Every time the bridge opens, particularly during peak rush hour, traffic backs up and business in the urban core shuts down,” said DDA Executive Director Alyce Robertson. “Doing nothing, or staying the course, is not an option. We need to work together to find a solution that benefits the residents, employees and visitors of downtown Miami.”
Dragon said it is difficult to justify a trial period when data from its 75-page report show extending the curfew would have minimal impact and could even increase traffic. Drawing up new regulations would be expensive and take 90 days, he said.
“I’d like to see a comprehensive traffic study of all of downtown,” Dragon said. “We have 12 other bridges and at the next busiest one at 12th Avenue the queues empty right out. The county has a new system of controlling traffic lights. Let’s figure out how we can have the most positive impact without penalizing waterway users.”
The bridge opens on the hour and half hour Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. if a vessel is waiting. Between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and on weekends it opens on demand (radio, horn, flag). The bridge opens on exception for emergencies, vessels in distress, government vessels, tugboats and tugboats towing cargo vessels. If a vessel claims an emergency and is found to be making an illegitimate claim, it can be fined up to $27,000.
But a previous study by DDA member Richard Lydecker’s law firm found that improper openings of the bridge during curfew by tenders — usually to accommodate yachts — was a cause of the bottlenecks that extend all the way to I-95.
The Coast Guard study found that the drawbridge was opened during curfew an average of 14 times per month and 91 percent of those openings were for vessels exempt from the curfew rules. It was only opened an average of 1.2 times per month during curfew for non-exempt vessels.
FDOT and the DDA have collaborated on an 11-point plan to reduce congestion. Enforcing the curfew rules by monitoring bridge tenders with cameras and electronically automating their handwritten logs is a priority. Pedestrian gates that will block people trying to rush across who delay the bridge opening sequence are being installed. Smart signage that alerts drivers to an impending opening is being erected throughout the area so they can find alternate routes before getting stuck in the jam. Additional signage on the river and the streets will notify boaters and drivers about the schedule. Controlling and synchronizing lights is being discussed with the county.
“If I’m a driver, I’d go another way rather than get stuck on Brickell, but we are a society of lemmings,” said Dragon, who lives downtown.
In the long run, growth will make a tunnel necessary, Russell said. The Miami River Marine Group agrees. The tunnel idea was on former Mayor Maurice Ferré’s budget wish list almost four decades ago.
“The city should have done it then,” Russell said, citing the success of the PortMiami tunnel.
Could Harriet the tunnel borer make a return to Miami? The estimated cost of building a tunnel is $1 billion.
“It’s only overdevelopment when the infrastructure hasn’t kept up, and it hasn’t,” Russell said. “We have to dream big.”