Miami-Dade County

Could army of buses and ferries replace Uber? Virginia Key poses challenge for Ultra

Ultra Music Festival 2018 - Day 1

The 2018 Ultra Music Festival marked the 20th iteration of the event in Miami since it was born from a small side party at the Winter Music Conference in 1999.
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The 2018 Ultra Music Festival marked the 20th iteration of the event in Miami since it was born from a small side party at the Winter Music Conference in 1999.

For Ultra Music Festival’s first year on Virginia Key after being kicked out of Bayfront Park, festival planners have traded disgruntled downtown neighbors for a logistical minefield.

The annual electronic dance music event faces a potential traffic nightmare on the Rickenbacker Causeway, the only roadway connecting Miami to Virginia Key and the tony village of Key Biscayne. Miami’s government and festival organizers are mulling plans to move up to 60,000 people off Virginia Key every night without the myriad transit options that exist at the festival’s previous home downtown. The three-day event will open March 29.

Three weeks before the inaugural beat drops on Virginia Key, festival planners have not yet secured a necessary Miami-Dade County permit due to technical issues with the proposed traffic management plan and pending review from multiple county and city departments.

The bulk of the plan, however, is being arranged. Festival organizers will deploy an army of shuttle buses and ferries to take people to and from hubs on the mainland where they can take mass transit or cars. The festival will have almost no parking for concertgoers on the island.

“For the convenience and safety of our patrons, and to reduce the local impact of carbon emissions and traffic, there will be no general admission parking available to patrons,” said Ray Martinez, Ultra’s spokesman and security chief. “Instead, on-site parking will only be offered to staff, attendees requiring special accommodations, vendors and to a limited number of VIP ticket holders.”

While city administrators and festival heads are less concerned with ticket holders arriving throughout each day, they worry about the mass of concertgoers leaving the event each night — and the thousands of ridesharing vehicles they could call within one hour of the festival’s closing.

One unprecedented option on the table: Prohibiting ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft from driving onto the island and forcing attendees to use a large fleet of buses and ferries to return to the mainland. The ridesharing industry could implement a blackout on Virginia Key so that people would have to request rides from drop-off locations for the buses and ferries.

Neither Uber nor Lyft nor Ultra confirmed a ridesharing blackout in statements to the Miami Herald, though Uber, which is reluctant to send drivers to the festival grounds, acknowledged worries over what would happen if cars could be called to the venue each night.

“Uber’s number one concern is the safety of our driver-partners and riders,” said Javi Correoso, Uber spokesman. “The event’s location poses significant logistical challenges, which is why we have flagged concerns and made recommendations to establish a transportation plan that prioritizes safety and efficiency.”

A top Miami official said the issue was discussed and left unresolved at a meeting this week at the city’s downtown administrative headquarters.

“We left without a solution for ridesharing,” said Joe Napoli, Miami’s deputy city manager.

Angelica Giasullo, 20, from Orlando, dances during the 2017 Ultra Music Festival in downtown Miami.

What’s clear is the message to anyone planning to attend the festival, as well as those lamenting the impact it will have on the causeway: Ultra and multiple government agencies do not want cars taking people to Virginia Key for the event.

To make this happen, the festival plans to mount an ambitious operation to minimize traffic on the causeway. Ultra has secured more than 200 buses to constantly shuttle revelers between the festival site and three locations: the old Miami Herald site near the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, AmericanAirlines Arena and Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Ultra is also funding 24-hour operation of Miami-Dade County’s Metrorail and Metromover, which have stops near the bus hubs. They usually shut down around midnight.

“The exact number of bus shuttles utilized from the transit hubs is still being determined,” Martinez said. “For the comfort, safety and convenience of our patrons, our bus shuttle service will include large 55-passenger coach buses with restrooms, air-conditioning, comfortable seating and on-board Wi-Fi.”

Ferries will also move people between Bayside Marketplace and docks near Miami Marine Stadium. The festival will be staged on two separate areas of the island linked by a barricaded walkway: the land outside the marine stadium and Virginia Key Beach Park.

Attendees are expected to flow steadily onto the festival grounds throughout the day. But the end of the night will create a new dynamic for Ultra. Once they’re at the festival, most people stay until the headliner act at the end, then all leave at once.

When the event was downtown, authorities could close Biscayne Boulevard after the last performance so revelers could spill out into downtown and use a variety of routes and services to leave. This time, the crowd will be on an island on a causeway.

“Our major concern is at the end of the night accommodating that high volume of people,” Napoli said.

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The ridesharing question was raised months ago by Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press, who said he brought up the idea of having vehicles to go to bus hubs on the mainland months ago.

“I think it’s a tremendous benefit to all the stakeholders,” he said. “It’s the great unknown.”

Press said while Ultra officials have been able to estimate numbers for buses and ferries, they could not say “how many vehicles are actually going to come on the key.”

“We have no idea whether it’s going to be one person using a rideshare company or 500,” he said. “Every car reduced from the causeway will help mitigate the traffic issues coming from the festival.”

Festival goers dance and cheer as Hardwell performs at the main stage during the first day of Ultra Music Festival in Bayfront Park on Friday, March 23, 2018. MATIAS J. OCNER

Key Biscayne has been a vocal critic of the festival being held on Virginia Key. Before the Miami commission vote in November to allow Ultra onto Virginia Key, the village launched an all-out campaign trying to get Miami officials to shoot down the idea. That campaign featured an outlandish video, shared on social media, that included images of widespread litter and drug use that were clearly not from Ultra.

Since November, when Miami commissioners approved an agreement to let Ultra move to Virginia Key, administrators from Key Biscayne and Miami have met multiple times to address issues. Traffic on the Rickenbacker has been a consistent question.

“The Village of Key Biscayne has always been concerned with an event of this size on our driveway,” Press said.

Miami-Dade police, which has jurisdiction over the causeway, will work with city authorities to keep traffic flowing. Det. Lee Cowart, Miami-Dade police spokesman, echoed Martinez in “highly recommending” people use buses and ferries.

Karla Damian, a spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Department of Transportation and Public Works department, told the Herald that Ultra submitted a traffic plan in February that is still pending approval from multiple government departments. County administrators still need schematics showing pedestrian walkways and fencing along the causeway’s median.

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This is the first year that Ultra will be held on Virginia Key after spending nearly two decades on Miami’s downtown waterfront. Downtown residents clamored to kick out Ultra last year over complaints of the volume of the electronic dance music blasting from the festival and the amount of time Bayfront Park was closed during the event’s set-up and tear-down. In September, Miami commissioners unanimously rejected a contract for Ultra to stay downtown.

Since the move to Virginia Key, Ultra has faced several challenges. This week, the Brickell Homeowners Association sued the city of Miami over the contract that allows Ultra on Virginia Key. The resident group alleges that the city broke its laws by awarding Ultra a no-bid contract to stage the festival on city-owned land on Virginia Key.

The festival previously faced a lawsuit from another electronic music event displaced by Ultra’s arrival on the island. Rapture Electronic Music Festival, which has been held on the key the last two years, sued the city and Ultra alleging a violation of anti-trust laws. A federal judge tossed the lawsuit in mid-February.

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, ranging from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He attended the University of Florida.

Carli Teproff grew up in Northeast Miami-Dade and graduated from Florida International University in 2003. She became a full-time reporter for the Miami Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news.